Friday, 12 July 2013

Suez ‘73 The IDF strikes back

It is the night of 15 October 1973, the clattering of the tanks of the 143rg Ugda of the Israeli Defence Force could be heard in the desert. Operation Stout-hearted Men has been launched. The tide of the Egyptian victories is about to be reversed.  Will you be able to cross the Suez Canal into Africa, destroy the SAM umbrella and trap the 3rd Egyptian Army while at the same time bloodying the 2nd Army further north?

The Game
Suez ’73 is an old game. It has been published in 1983 by GDW, Games Designer Workshop, the brainchild of Frank Chadwick. Several years ago a friend of mine offered me a copy for 5 Euros… having already plenty of games on the Yom Kippur war I did not get the thing… I was an idiot. Fast forward to the present, more than 10 years after that silly decision.  I have assigned a research project on the battle of Ismailia a side note in the whole Canal Crossing operation. I needed some good maps and order of battle information and I realized that Frank and his ‘Chief Researcher’ Joe Bermudez had experienced a lot of my same pain back in time, with the added advantage that they had plenty of time and Joe has much better contacts than me. I decided to secured a good condition punched copy from BGG… few days later (the seller happened to be located in UK) the game showed up in my Hall when I was back from the (South) Korean Embassy. Well now I will not have to regret my stupidity anymore.
Suez ’73 is not a simple game some will say even fiddly, but it is certainly a very interesting one. Inside the old fashion slim flat box you have a 22x28” map that is in my personal view quite attractive.  The hexes are large and the colours pleasant. It covers more or less the area between Faid and Ismailia on both side of the Canal. There are 500 counters, mainly battalions with some companies and informational markers. The counters are for the most part sporting NATO symbols with tanks and special vehicles represented by icons. On the front of the counters you have the unit type, name of the unit including formation affiliation, the strength in steps and the movement class. On the back of the counters there are the key values, 1 and 2 hexes antitank firepower, proficiency, conventional firepower and range,  assault bonus and armour value. Units take incremental losses represented by the use of numerical (not pollard as some people said around) markers.  

The table at start of scenario 1, you can see both map and counter graphics

There are two booklets, one for rules and notes, one for scenarios and a very detailed historical commentary. The booklets are black and white and they do not have illustration. The rules are clear, but they lack examples. Still after a careful reading and playing the first scenario they are not difficult to memorize.  They are interesting. Each turn is divided in a variable number of impulses. Each side has 10 movement points (MP) to allocate to the various impulses as they fit. So one side can have 10 1 MP impulses, and the other a single 10 MP one.  Night turns restrict you to only 5 MP (7 in the first night turn). Combat is firepower based and basically has 4 different incarnations. Conventional combat (against soft target and can include artillery support), antitank combat, assault and artillery barrage. Combat is resolved in steps, first barrage, then defensive fire against assaulting units, then mutual fire. You can also do opportunity fire during your enemy movement. Combat causes step losses that can, in part, be recovered by regrouping (mainly withdrawing) at the cost of disruption (temporarily lowering your proficiency). There are special rules for crossing the Suez Canal by various means (amphibious vehicles, mechanized rafts, and the monster Israeli roller bridge, yes a bridge rolling on wheels… I am not kidding). Artillery gets a pretty detailed treatment, with spotting observation, deployment, and counter-battery fire.

I told you it was not a joke. The roller bridge at the IDF armoured force museum at Latrun. Just a segment, the original was bigger and it had to be towed by tanks and other tanks were harnessed to the side to avoid segments going away.

The importance of the process
I have done my job of researching this conflict in the past (and even recently). I think that the game is really effective in representing the situation, the strength and weaknesses of the two armies, and, even more importantly, the chaos of the situation. Well how it succeeds?
I think it succeeds very well, in a way that a lower complexity and more abstract would never have been able to do. Probably its nuanced and detailed approach to modelling the combat and movement dynamic is the key of the success. The battle for the Chinese farm was bloody. Ariel Sharon’s tank battalions sustained awful losses in tanks both do infantry antitank weapons (Sagger missiles and RPG-7) and Egyptian tanks. Even Adan’s tanks in daylight fared no better. In contrast in the preceding battles during the 14th October Egyptian offensive, or in the subsequent engagement by Adan’s division against the  25th Egyptian Armoured Brigade or the sweep on the ‘Aida Plains’ (if you enjoy Verdi like me you will not miss the reference, and at least one IDF battalion commander did the same, humming the Glory to Egypt march in the battalion net while charging) very pretty much one sided affairs with superior Israeli tank gunnery and command and control carrying the day and causing disproportionate losses. Why that was the case in history and how the game solves this apparent problem, considering the game is also portraying both the destruction of the 25th Armoured Brigade and the battle in the Aida Plains?
The different results were due to the interplay between the different systems. The main advantages of tanks are good optics, long range guns, and mobility. These elements play very well in daytime (or at night if you have night vision devices, a thing the IDF did not have) at long range, especially against other tanks, essentially big bulky targets. Firing against infantry is different. While theoretically you can just lobby High Explosive (HE) shells at the poor infantry from more or less the same range of your Armour Piercing (AP) rounds in practice you first have to spot the bad guys. Humans are small targets, if they are in prepared defensive positions with trenches they are almost invisible. The first signal they are there is when they fired at you. If you give the infantry a lot of antitank devices, like guided missiles, RPG-7 and antitank guns (yes they were still used at the time) the moment they fire at you you get casualties. Add to that concealed tanks and you have a tank commander nightmare. Casualties will mount on both sides very quickly.
Israely doctrine at the time was extremely focused on the tank. Mechanized infantry and artillery were just appendage to the all conquering tank. Israeli tanks had been surprised by the effectiveness of Egyptian infantry during the first week of the war and asked for more infantry and artillery. Yet in such a short time frame (the war was 9 days old when the battle fo the Chinese Farm started) adding to the order of battle was impossible. The IDF had to fight with what it had.  This ensured that while they still dominated the open engagement they were suffering when they had to root out the Egyptian infantry. They had to use scarce artillery to suppress the enemy anti-tank weapons and then charge with scarce infantry and available tanks to take the ground sustaining losses.
How you tell the people this was happening while they are playing the game? Well, the ‘less is better’ horde will simply tell you that you will need to lower the IDF tank numbers to represent they vulnerability to close range combat. And how you have the same tank dominating the Egyptian tanks in the open? If you reduce the Egyptian tank factors how they will be able to work well in defence? Well ‘less is crap’. As much abstraction can be useful, abstraction is not an end (and here is where me and Professor Phil are often banging our heads and readying our gladii).  Suez ’73 do it in a very sensible way explaining you the process. Of course this requires more time and more rules, but the end results is much more satisfying that simpler games on the same topic.  With the different combat systems used in the game (conventional, antitank, assault, and barrage) you see why the battle turned the way it did. You can get rid of enemy tanks quite easily with your own tanks, you cannot do the same with infantry. You have to get close and they will shoot back at you. You can use artillery, but you need to have it available. The Egyptian have a lot, the Israeli not so much. Infantry is valuable as an assault weapons, but it is vulnerable in the open. By highlighting these factors in an explicit and direct manner the game succeeds in telling the player something about the battle. Sharon’s decision to concentrate on the Akavish road rather than Tirtur until more forces were available and his reluctance to attack Missouri Ridge made sense. As it made sense the importance placed on the Tirtur road by the IDF command (it is the only way to move the roller bridge to the canal and without the roller bridge any bridgehead is vulnerable.
Of course the decision to present so much detail has a price, yet, considering the relative size of the game it is not a steep price and certainly a price I am willing to pay. 

Criticism of the critics
I think the game is pretty good, I have not found any real problem except for the constant need to flip counters to read the combat values but after a while you start to remember them. Yet I found two criticisms on web-grognard (back from the past) that I think have to be addressed. One of them hints at a game problem, namely that the Israeli player can just sit back and take 1MP impulse to pound the Egyptians into oblivion. Well, I think the person who asked that had never played the game. Combat is simultaneous, both sides get pounded If you stick too much in contact  you will end bruised.  The second is a matter of time. You need to take some bigger movement chunk to get across the canal and time is not a luxury for the Israeli player. Yo need at least a 2MP impulse everyime you need to cross the Canal. Also you need to move quite a lot to get your victory point.
The second criticism is that somehow you need to limit the combat segments because you are producing too many casualties. Well, again this is based on the idea that you willingly stick on combat for 10 impulses. The game gave you plenty of way to reduce losses and avoid combat. Players often tend to push their troops to limits reasonable commander do not reach. There is also the usual question of what these losses represents, just killed/wounded or also demoralization?
Well I think that these two criticisms are spurious to the game and show the usual tendency of players to change rules disregarding designer intentions.

The Verdict:
Well, I regret to not have bought this for 5 euros longtime ago. I like the game very much. I know there will be people that will yell that is to complex, too fiddly, the map is paper, the counters are drab… well who cares? I have made my idea on complexity quite clear in the past. Simplicity in itself is not an end. If we push our search for simplicity too much we will lose not only important game decisions but the ability to understand processes and not only effects. (I am sorry Professor, but I will rather play this or White Death than your Fire and Manoeuvre for example). Yes different types of combat (actually four: conventional, antitank, barrage, and assault) could appear too many, but at this scale it is important to show the difference on how the system operate. It is also important to show the different factor. Often you cannot have everything boiled down to a single number like in Hell’s Gate. Abstraction has it cost, usually quite steep. Sometime showing the process is at least as important as showing the effect. I really appreciate that the game shows the difference between the various method of attacks and the difference between different combat arms. I also like how the game captures the chaotic nature of the historical situation. It is also incredibly fun to play.

Into the night, the IDF and the Egyptians are enmeshed around the Chinese Farm


  1. Nice review. You made me want to get the game and play it. And I don't think the map and counters are too drab. I like the older style stuff.

  2. Hey Arrigo, great review. My copy is lovingly preserved and unpunched, but I have read the rules numerous times. What type of research are you doing for the Yom Kippur War? I've studied this war extensively and am looking to design a game at the same scale as Suez '73.

    Frank Chadwick has continued the discussion on OB research on the Command Decision website Test of Battle. The discussion has been quite lively and I've joined in on the conversation (as username Dunnigan):

    1. Calvinboy, I just did some base OoB and map research on the battles after the IDF crossing of the canal for a map exercise. Thanks for the heads up on the new data.