November 30, 2022

#UnboxingDay ~ October War: Doctrine and Tactics in the Yom Kippur Conflict, 6 to 24 October 1973 by SPI

Aaron Danis, 17 November 2022 ~ #UnboxingDay

This year is the 49th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.  Ideally, I would do this review of October War (OW) next year, but I bought my second copy of this game this summer from a great gamer (thanks Larry!) who lives about 45 minutes away, so I should do the unboxing now.  This is a perfectly preserved unpunched copy of Strategy & Tactics #61 with the magazine.  I have loved this game from the first time it showed up in the mail in the spring of 1977, less than 4 years after the war was fought (it was my fourth subscription issue and the first one with TANKS!). Designed by the late (and underrated) Irad B. Hardy and developed by a young Mark Herman (who would design the follow-on Mech War 2 released in 1979), it was an innovator in a key aspect of armored tactical games (more on that below).

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October War component Overview. Caption: Nothing quite says October like pumpkins October War.

click images to enlarge

OW is a two-player game that puts players in the shoes of Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi (in two later published optional scenarios) tactical commanders in October 1973 during the 2 ½ week war that opened the eyes of US military leaders planning to fight the Soviets in Europe. The unexpected effectiveness of Soviet anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles was a surprise, as was the general intensity of combat, which necessitated that the US tap its own war stocks to fly more aircraft, tanks, and ammunition to Israel as emergency replacement for combat losses.  Everyone had to relearn that using combined arms is the most effective tactical maxim.

OW has the S&T standard 200 ½ inch counters.  The Israelis account for 82 (with 3 varieties of Main Battle Tanks and 2 types of Armored Personnel Carriers), the “Arabs” (the Syrians, Egyptians, and Iraqis were Soviet client states) have 48 (2 MBT types and 2 APC types), and the remaining 60 are used as game markers for losses, suppression, depleted ammo, and panic.  The counters are thin and well-cut, although most of the counter sheets distributed were printed with the front on flat side of the counters while the rounded or smooth side of the unit counters are blank, the reverse of most games. Later sheets were printed correctly, but I have only seen them in pictures.

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The infamous reverse-printed counters.

 

The game scale is 200 meters per hex and 2 minutes per turn, and almost all units represent platoons of 3 vehicles or infantry.  The scenarios run from 15-20 turns each, except for the unique campaign scenarios for the Egyptian and Syrian fronts that consist of three scenarios each (45-60 total turns), and the Israelis must take the survivors of the first scenario on to the succeeding ones without additional reinforcements.  There are a generous 9 total scenarios (including the first one of each campaign), plus the two additional Mark Herman scenarios included in Moves 33.

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October War map sheet. Caption: I now have two of these maps and more counters and hope to do bigger scenarios.

 

The map sheet is the usual composite of tactical terrain in the Sinai and Golan Heights, a la Panzerblitz, Panzerleader, Combat Command, Red Star/White Star, Mech War 77, and any other tactical games before or since.  It is easy to read, and as with most tactical armor games in the desert, defilade is important to survival, so any terrain with it (in this case hills) is key terrain.  Smoke is delivered by artillery and Israeli mortars and becomes another form of line-of-sight (LoS) blocking terrain, albeit portable.  No one has thermal sights to see through it.

If you like tank combat, this is the game for you.  Unlike its predecessor games mentioned above, if you hit a tank in this game with tank or anti-tank fire, it is likely that you will kill it and it stays dead within the timeframe of the scenario.  Gone are the amorphous “disruption” results of the earlier games.  All adversaries used 3-vehicle platoons, so you can kill one or more tanks in direct (and indirect) fire combat.  Additional rules allow you to use split fire (tanks fire individually or 2 +1 combinations), and you can regroup platoons that have taken losses back to full strength by combining them. As expected, Sagger anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) fire is deadly out to a maximum range of 15 hexes (3,000 meters) but can suffer missile depletion.

The game has minimal errata, and a great deal of supporting rules material in Herman’s Moves 33 article.  More tank combat-oriented optional rules include overwatch fire, pullback, armored vehicle suppression, and night combat (used in one of the optional scenarios).  Add in thorough designer notes and an excellent tactical analysis written by then-playtester Tony Merridy in Moves 32, and you have a self-contained game that changed how platoon-level armored combat is portrayed in wargames.  With 11 scenarios, it will be a while before you run out of things to do with this game.

If the game has a weakness, it is one endemic to many wargames, the bane of having too much information if you are playing solo.  In the two-player mode, you can use hidden and dummy units, which while not perfect, are enough to keep you opponent guessing.  Airpower and off-map artillery are done “hand of God” style, preplanned a turn in advance like many tactical games.  But artillery is not the star here; it’s the tanks and there are a lot of them in every scenario. Jumping in to try and steal the show are the ATGMs.  You quickly need to learn the lesson that the Israelis painfully learned in the first week of the war: combined arms are king. It is something the Russians still need to learn in Ukraine today. This game holds up well and gives you a real “feel” for the 1973 war at the tactical level.  Coupled with SPI’s Firefight, it taught me the fundamentals of combined arms combat years before I joined the U.S. Army. You can’t ask for more.

 


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