The 2007 PC game Combat Mission: Shock Force by Battlefront depicts a US invasion of Syria four years before a different but very real and terrible conflict erupted. Battlefront then shifted to a series of Combat Mission titles set in World War II, before starting work in 2012 on a game depicting a war between NATO and Russia over Ukraine.
These games don't depict proxy wars between Russia and the West, or between Syria and the United States, but state-to-state showdowns. Suffice to say, the developers don't like being quasi-prescient about the locations of tomorrow's wars.
In between, Battlefront released 2010's Combat Mission: Afghanistan, a largely overlooked interlude depicting the 1979–1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan. It's the odd one out in the series, as the player takes command of either the Soviet army—and the forces of the Soviet-backed Afghan communist government—or the Mujahideen.
So I tried it as the Soviets. And stumbled into a debacle.
Read more: The US Army Has Too Many Video Games
First, a quick note on the gameplay: Unlike most war-themed games, Combat Mission does not put the player in control of a single soldier on a battlefield, but in command of a larger military organization.
The game prizes itself on detail. It models individual vehicles and soldiers, grouped in squads of several men each, organized in platoons which are organized in companies which are part of battalions—and it's all in 3D.
The World War II titles in the series often depict larger battles. But in Combat Mission: Afghanistan, most scenarios have around 80 to 200 soldiers per side.
You can play it in real time, but it's better to enable the turn-based mode. Here, the player issues orders , such as move, shoot or hide , and hits a red "go" button. For the next minute, you're powerless to control the action, but the AI is smart enough to react to dangers as they appear.
Every minute, the game pauses, and only then can you issue a new round of orders. It's an interesting balance of control and chaos—and a rough simulation of Prussian military theorist Helmuth von Moltke's adage that "no plan survives contact with the enemy."
But mostly, it's a game about tactics and making decisions based on incomplete information. At the same time, the series puts a great deal of effort to accurately portray a database of weapons and what they can do.
Our scenario takes place in the fall of 1984, and I'm in charge of a Soviet motorized rifle company and a tank platoon. Our mission is to clear a section of Herat city in western Afghanistan. Inside the city's dense warrens is a Mujahideen force of more than 130 fighters. I have a slight numerical advantage.
In support of my boot infantry and tanks is a battery of 152-millimeter howitzers. It's a formidable arsenal which would wreck anything in the open.
Except the enemy won't be in the open.
First move—the howitzers lay down a protective smokescreen behind the first row of buildings on the northern edge of the city, blocking the view from the three- and four-story prefab concrete blocks deeper within. The infantry company moves in on foot, with orders to move cautiously.
Since the company is motorized, their BTR-60 vehicles and the tank platoon—one T-55 and two T-62s—advance slowly in a column down the two-lane road which divides the city in eastern and western sections. The infantry occupy the buildings without resistance, and don't take fire from anyone deeper inside.
Whether it was because of the smokescreen or not, I will never know.
Then the shooting starts, directed at the Soviet troops taking second-story positions on the northern edge of town. The fire is coming from where I expected, roughly in the center of our map. Fortunately, it's sporadic and ineffective. A minor firefight develops.
So I gamble and order a BTR-60 to peek down a street where the fire is coming from, and a hidden rebel with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher fires off a round, hitting the vehicle and catching it on fire. The crew bails and more rebels—these ones armed with rifles—shoot them down.
Here's the emerging problem, besides my gaming abilities.
The Soviet army, at least the one depicted in Combat Mission: Afghanistan, has an exploitable weakness. It will crush the Mujahideen in a head-to-head fight when the Mujahideen gives it one. The Afghan rebels don't do that in Herat.
Equipment also matters. The Soviets are largely a close-to-medium range, assault-focused force, reflecting a doctrine shaped for a massive invasion of Western Europe. The Mujahideen is far more mixed, and they possess a greater proportion of longer-range weapons, including bolt-action rifles left over from World War II and high-powered DShK machine guns.
But the rebels have plenty of assault rifles for closer-range work, too. Thus, the Soviets must get close—but even that strategy poses its own dangers.
While the Soviets have more than enough armored vehicles with heavier firepower, their utility is limited in the tight streets. I'm also having trouble getting an angle on Mujahideen fighters in buildings chosen for their narrow fields of fire. Without my vehicles, the odds favor the rebels at a distance. If I order my vehicles to drive down the streets, they could hit mines.
Which is what happens again and again. And if it couldn't be any worse, the Mujahideen have booby-trapped doorways all over town.
The infantry company begins the slow process of moving deeper into the city, as our few supporting marksmen and machine gun teams remain in the upper floors of the buildings on the city's northern edge to provide covering fire.
Halfway in, the company meets heavier resistance from fighters positioned at street level. As the Soviet troops seek cover, they start tripping the mines in the doorways. Casualties mount. When I try to move the BTR-60s closer, they trigger explosive devices in the street.
The heaviest Mujahideen force is dug in on the southeastern edge of our map within several layers of buildings—a defense-in-depth tactic. The Soviets' 152-millimeter guns dump everything they have on the area. It's brutally effective, and a group of Mujahideen fighters flee across the two-lane street, heading west.
The tanks shoot them.
Sensing an opportunity, I gamble again, and order the tanks and more BTR-60s farther up the two-lane street. Another RPG whooshes out of a building and knocks out a T-62. The BTR-60s hit more mines.
I'm inflicting damage on the enemy, though it's not going well.
More turns go by and the Soviets push the rebels into a belt along the back half of the map. The city is mostly clear, but it wasn't worth it. Twenty-three Soviet troops are dead and 16 others are wounded. Almost all of the rifle company's vehicles are destroyed, and so is one of the armor platoon's three tanks.
Three times as many Mujahideen have died, but it's not about that—it's a tactical defeat for the Red Army given the bloody toll. The Mujahideen could afford its losses; I couldn't.
What should I have done differently? I could have held the vehicles back far more often, and proceeded more cautiously with the infantry. Instead of taking gambles with the vehicles, I could've moved up the machine gunners to help with the advance instead of keeping them too far back.
Mainly, I grew frustrated and moved too quickly. I could've also used a battalion, not a reinforced company.
A final note: The US Army Command and General Staff School has trained soldiers with Combat Mission: Shock Force. But in any case, don't take this as a stand-in for real warfare because it isn't. A review by three retired US Army officers in Armor magazine even noted, "Like most games, it is not perfect."
However, the game is "an inexpensive, easy-to-learn method of teaching basic tactical fundamentals."
Emphasis on basic. And after my virtual battle for Herat, I obviously have a lot to learn.