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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Luck versus Skill

This is Steven Petrick posting.

Luck is one of those things that it is almost impossible to factor into a game (much less real life). A long time ago there was an Avalon Hill board game based on the "Battle of the Bulge," and basically titled that. The "Combat Results Table" for that game included a result of "engaged." Engaged meant that the units you just used to attack with, and the enemy units you attacked, remained adjacent to each other, the defender had to attack (on his subsequent turn), and could bring up reinforcements to do so.

In one particular game I saw an opportunity to stage a limited counterattack against the Germans, delaying their advance on Bastogne.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

The result was a series of "engaged" results. Not good.

The German player on his turn saw this as an opportunity and brought up reinforcements to launch his own counterattacks, but also use the situation to move around the flanks of my counterattack, which were more "screening" forces than real defenses, his goal being to crush my attack annihilating the formations I was using and thereby leaving me fewer forces to try to reestablish a defensive line.

Seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean if I had been him, I would pretty much have done the same thing.

The result was a series of "engaged" results.

Now I was in a quandary. The obvious thing to do was use the engaged results to "abandon" my forward units and use my newly arrived reinforcements to establish a new line closer to Bastogne.

I could not do it, and in my own turn initiated a series of counterattacks designed principally to break my forward units out of the mess, essentially a replay of my original plan (delay the German advance) although with the reinforcements a little more ambitious (the German attacks had left me with a few "flanks" to hit, with the potential that those German units would be destroyed if forced to retreat).

The result was a series of "engaged" results.

The Germans saw the situation as a potential for a big bag, and diverted more forces to the sector to initiate a new series of attacks, finding exposed flanks now on my side that they could exploit for a "American unit is destroyed if forced to retreat" result.

Once again, yes, you guessed it, a series of "engaged" results.

From one standpoint, my limited counterattack had so far been an outstanding success. The German advance was being held up (I was achieving the delay I had originally set out to gain, in spades). However, the whole situation was precariously balanced on a knife's edge. Most of my available combat power was now tied up in this battle, and the rest of my forces were inadequate to the task of holding the Germans elsewhere.

Again I was faced with the choice of abandoning the bulk of my troops in the "engaged" results and trying to cobble together a line from the scraps that remained, or finding troops to press into the battle once more.

This is where luck came in because I chose once again not to abandon my troops but to once more initiate a series of counterattacks in an effort to break them out. The luck was that in this turn I rolled very well and virtually any German unit that could be destroyed (as a result of being unable to retreat) was destroyed. German losses were, not to put too fine a point on it, devastating.

However, I looked on the situation from that point as "I have burned all of the good luck I can expect to have in this game" and became very cautious afterward.

Strangely, this view proved prescient, in that the massive depleted German forces actually did succeed in driving my forces back to the Meuse River, but were too weak to go any further (the Germans rolled well from that point, forcing my forces to retreat, but as I did not risk any counterattacks, they were unable to create any situation where if an American unit had to retreat, it would be destroyed).

To this day I still believe my original intent (the limited counterattack to delay the Germans) was valid, but I have come to believe that I seriously over committed to the action and risked everything. If I had rolled another series of engages, or if the Germans had not rolled that second series of engages, I would have "lost the Battle of the Bulge." Luck won that particular game, not skill.