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Modern Spearhead Designer's Notes
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The Rules - About MSH
Monday, 01 January 2001 11:47
Article Index
Designers' Notes
Timing of Fire / Ranges
More on Weapons
Helicopters / SRBMs / WMDs
Data Cards / Conclusion
All Pages


Modern Spearhead CoverAnyone attempting to design a companion set of rules to a game as popular and successful as Arty Conliffe’s SPEARHEAD rules is asking for trouble; every change of the rules is bound to upset someone somehow — perhaps even the original designer. Furthermore, SPEARHEAD gamers are certain to have predetermined expectations of how the game should be applied to the modern era.

In designing a modern version of SPEARHEAD, we thus faced dangers on two fronts. If we altered too much, we risked violating the integrity of the SPEARHEAD design; if we altered too little, we might fail in our efforts to simulate modern warfare. With this double jeopardy in mind, we present the following Designer’s Notes to explain why we made the changes we made to the original SPEARHEAD rules (for an explanation of the design philosophy that led to SPEARHEAD, we refer players to the Introduction).

Mechanized Infantry

One decision we made early on was to retain the "single stand" rules for infantry and armored personnel carriers from SPEARHEAD, judging that the numerous tactical decisions required of a player by a two-stand system were outside the scope of the division-level mechanics. We also felt the complexity of mechanized infantry operations could not be made compatible with MODERN SPEARHEAD if we used a "multi-stand" approach. The question, then, was how to best simulate, using one stand, the mounted and dismounted action of a platoon of infantry and its supporting armored vehicles. We found our answer in the West German doctrine that the dismounted infantry squad is but one of the weapon systems of a combined-arms team of men and vehicle (what we called a "Combat Team"). Since this doctrine reverses the conventional view that the armored vehicles exist to support the dismounted troops, it called for a closer look at why troops fight mounted.

After studying modern infantry doctrine, we concluded that there are two main reason infantry fights mounted:
1. To keep up with the tanks.
2. To reduce its vulnerability to indirect fire.

Much of modern defensive doctrine is concerned with generating and using obstacles and anti-tank zones that force attacking infantry to dismount, rendering them vulnerable to indirect fire.

Thus, Combat Teams move as vehicles on the assumption that the infantry are usually mounted inside their IFV or APC. Combat Teams are spotted as vehicles for the same reason; the exception is when the "Team" is in cover under the assumption that the infantry are at the edge of cover with the armored vehicle(s) in comparatively safe, covered supporting positions.

Combat Team DEF factors are based on similar doctrinal underpinnings. The Combat Team is vulnerable to enemy armor, especially in the open. This is because loss of a vehicle with mounted infantry will usually result in loss of at least part of the infantry component, the net result being to render the whole temporarily ineffective. However, the skilled application of combined arms tactics will reduce (if not eliminate) these risks. The Team is much less vulnerable when in covered defensive positions, where the infantry can be protected from artillery and yet not risk sudden death from antitank fire.

As in SPEARHEAD there is the option of dismounting from the vehicle, with no provision to remount again later. Dismounting is seen as an operational decision by the Company Commander, brought about by the threat of enemy MBTs and ATGWs, the need to cross an obstacle impassable to vehicles, or the desire to reduce the units signature (visibility) in open terrain. Because these are all likely to result in vehicles being sent some distance to the rear, where they will take no active part in the immediate future of unit operations, remounting is not permitted within the time frame of a typical MSH game.

Finally, we have built into the abstraction, by way of the priority rules, realistic responses for Combat Teams when they encounter enemy. In situations against other teams the infantry will invariably dismount to fight alongside their vehicle(s), this being the best way they can ensure that the enemy does not gain an advantage by doing so, and we have emphasized this by the use of AI factors rather than AT or ATGW. Similarly the presence of the armored vehicles prevents teams from being overrun, but allows them to overrun conventional infantry and artillery. Ultimately this means combat teams are very powerful in covered defensive positions, or against enemy with little armor present. However, on the attack against a well-balanced force the player is presented with a tactical dilemma. He must choose either speed across the open with safety from artillery fire (but vulnerability to MBTs and ATGWs), or discretion and safety from AT fire (but at the cost of speed and vulnerability to artillery).

Timing of Fire

One of the most obvious changes from the original SPEARHEAD is in the Timing of Fire sequence. SPEARHEAD focused — rightly — on the scissors-paper-rock relationship of infantry, tanks, and guns; the Timing of Fire rules rewarded cooperation in these vital arms. In modern warfare, however, these categorizations break down. Antitank guns, where they are still present, are usually self-propelled and are more tank-like. Infantry now usually ride in armored vehicles, many of which are basically tanks. The tanks themselves have powered turrets, stabilized guns, and laser targeting systems that greatly increase the speed and accuracy of target designation. Accompanying this mechanization of all arms is the rise of a new weapon of mobile war, the helicopter, with its rapid target acquisition, high rate of fire, and long range while artillery has resurged as a major killer with new, improved munitions and increasingly rapid response times.

US Infantry - Spearhead Rear CoverWe altered the Timing of Fire sequence from SPEARHEAD in light of these considerations. Infantry, Tanks, and Guns now all fire in one of the two Direct Fire Phases. Artillery and Air units now fire in separate phases, Artillery before Air; thus allowing a wise player to use his artillery to suppress enemy air-defenses prior to the arrival of attack helicopters, the new shock arm of modern warfare.

Even after this revision of the basic Timing of Fire sequence, a major problem remained. All modern armies rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on guided antitank missiles characterized by a large back blast and a slow time to target. These factors would seem to indicate that Antitank Guided Weapon fire should occur late in the sequence of fire. Yet because all types of units (turreted vehicles, helicopters, and infantry) use antitank missiles, assigning them a separate phase in the Timing of Fire was impractical.

Our solution was to have Antitank Guided Weapon fire occur simultaneous with other Direct Fire, but limit its capacity for Ambush fire. The lack of Ambush capacity goes far to simulate the real-life weaknesses of the antitank guided missile. For example, assume Player A has an ATGW vehicle in cover and Player B moves his tank at combat speed to 18" away. Since ATGWs are not eligible for Ambush fire, the ATGW will fire in the Stationary Fire phase. If the tank survives, it will get to fire back in the Moving Fire phase, which it would not get to do against a vehicle using conventional cannon.

Weapon Ranges

Much has been written about the frightening accuracy of modern weapon systems. It is an unquestioned fact that modern tank guns and missiles are capable of kills at ranges up to 4000 meters. Such statistics, when applied to miniature Wargames, often result in a static battlefield where enemy forces engage each other across an 8’ (or larger) table. Such games seem to us to be neither enjoyable nor realistic.

Theoretical performance aside, most modern tank engagements have taken place at about 2400 meters or less. Moving targets are difficult to hit at over 1500 meters, particularly when obscured by smoke and terrain. On the attack, vehicle movement, battlefield dust and smoke, and the enemy's use of camouflage and concealment significantly reduce effective engagement ranges. On defense, the necessary platoon-level fire control results in a further reduction in the engagement range. Even if one tank in a firefight gets a shot off at maximum range, the platoon as a whole may not engage until the enemy is within a designated engagement zone, well within effective range. Even the much-vaunted antitank guided missile’s accuracy is limited by flight length, operator exposure, terrain, smoke, and incoming fire.

Given these considerations, we have erred on the side of caution in assigning Ranges on the Data Cards. In MSH, most weapon ranges are generally confined to 24" (or less), and the real trick is finding ground where you can use even that much range.

As in original SPEARHEAD, all MSH platoons have a single Effective Range. While it is true that casualties do increase as range decreases, there is generally a large "effective range" within which casualties can be inflicted at a fairly constant rate. Once outside this area, the number of casualties inflicted rapidly becomes insignificant, at least from the point of view of the operational commander. Since MSH simulates warfare at the operational level, the multiple "range brackets" used in most wargames are unnecessary tactical details.

Technically oriented players are certain to notice we did not include any data on minimum ranges for direct fire (particularly ATGWs). Again, this is by design. MSH assumes that combat is taking place within a flexible combat area, where local commanders are making decisions; this includes setting up proper engagement zones and knowing the optimum time to fire to avoid minimum range problems. The effective range of modern weapons defines the area of combat in MSH.

New Attack and Defense Factors

One of our primary challenges was to create mechanics that could simulate the new weapon systems and counter-measures of modern war, without unduly modifying the standard Attack vs. Defense factor procedures of the original SPEARHEAD.

As noted earlier, one of the major new developments of modern warfare has been the ATGW. In the 1973 War, the long range and devastating effectiveness of the ATGW had military analysts proclaiming the end of the tank as a viable weapon. Since 1973, however, new developments in defense technology (reactive or combined armor) have transformed the ATGW into merely a mediocre tank killer. After several unhappy playtest experiments involving new modifiers, automatic misses, and other modifications to the SPEARHEAD combat resolution method, we hit upon the idea of developing new Attack and Defense Factors, ATGW and CED. These new combat factors allowed us to retain SPEARHEAD’s simple combat resolution while still reflecting the changing effectiveness of ATGWs as technology progressed.


All modern tank guns are to some degree stabilized for firing on the move. Recently, the M1A2 tank has been lauded as the ultimate development in stabilization technology, a tank that can fire accurately and rapidly while moving up to 60 miles per hour.

The original SPEARHEAD permitted tanks to fire on the move but penalized their fire by placing it in a later turn sequence. The question facing us was therefore whether advances in weapon stabilization meant that moving tanks should be allowed to fire in the stationary fire phase. In answering this question, we looked beyond the individual tank and asked whether the rate of fire and accuracy of tanks in the battalion as a whole would still be adversely affected by movement. An examination of the ‘frictional’ factors, including fire coordination, unit formation, tank commander's focus, and smoke/dust, convinced us that any battalion of tanks would have more effective firepower when stationary than when moving, regardless of stabilization.

Modern Spearhead Front CoverHaving determined that moving vehicles with stabilized weapons would not be allowed to fire as if stationary, the question then became how we would represent the differences in degree of stabilization between the ultra-modern systems of, e.g., the M1A2 and earlier stabilization systems. We found that permitting vehicles to take greater combat movement was both a playable and realistic representation of the improvements in mobility and fire control afforded by their advanced stabilization systems.

Infantry Factors and Ranges

Although modern weapon effectiveness has increased, engagement ranges have not. It is true that the presence of semi and full automatic weapons throughout the world’s armies has now created a common level of theoretical firepower possibly not seen since Napoleonic times. However, these weapons haven’t provided a corresponding increase in range, and it is now generally acknowledge that the bulk of Infantry combat will occur at ranges of 300m or less. Furthermore, the squad or section machine gun and various support weapons (mortars and artillery) have and will still inflict the most casualties.

Extensive research has also shown that in modern wars (i.e. Post WWII) often only 1-2 soldiers in a squad will actually fight, the balance simply firing their weapons in the general direction of the enemy, or not firing at all. The level to which this is apparent can vary: The syndrome was apparent in Vietnam where the US had large number of unwilling conscripts present, and yet virtually unknown in the Gulf War, where the same nation had a higher percentage of professionals. These facts ultimately put emphasis on the squad or section heavy weapon as being responsible for the bulk of a unit’s firepower. This issue is further complicated by the fact that after World War II most nations abandoned LMGs in favor of GPMGs (such as the US M60) based on the effectiveness of the German Infantry tactics. However in the ‘90s the pendulum has swung back in favor of the LMG, and most nations are replacing their GPMGs with lighter weapons.

Ultimately, we have concluded that overall effectiveness of Infantry firepower is very stable and similar worldwide. Regardless of the presence of high numbers of automatic or semi-automatic weapons and the quality of the troops the level of, and effectiveness of, firepower will be fairly constant.

Infantry factors are therefore standardized at AI of 5 and Range 6". In extreme cases of unwilling conscripts or poorly equipped troops such as insurgents, scenario designers may wish to assign a temporary AI factor of 4. With the advent of the M16, FN-FAL, AK-47 and similar assault rifles, the distinction between Rifles and SMGs is moot. But because we feel that the majority of infantry firepower comes from its crew-served weapons, we have not followed SPEARHEAD’s precedent of allowing troops with fully-automatic weapons to conduct stationary fire even when moving. The SMG Platoon has thus disappeared from the Data Cards. Likewise, the presence of "pure" HMG, MMG, or SFMG units has largely disappeared in most armies; on the rare occasions where they are present, they have an extended range (9"), no AT, and only the same AI 5 as other Infantry.


In designing our helicopter rules, we were guided by the Soviet conception of the "flying tank" and the maxim "rotor is to track as track is to boot." At the same time, we sought to limit helicopters in a realistic manner to executable missions and engagement areas, much as SPEARHEAD had limited ground forces with orders and command zones.

The purpose of the Helicopter Missions is twofold: Firstly, to emphasize what the objective of the helicopter’s sortie is; and secondly, to represent the restrictive effect of ammunition limitations. We had originally planned to have separate attack values (for each helicopter type) on the Data Cards for each mission type. This proved cumbersome and was abandoned. Instead, emphasis is now placed on analyzing each helicopter type’s strengths and weaknesses, and assigning units a mission that allows them to maximize the use of their best factors (much as would be done in a real conflict).

Helicopter transportation has been designed to reflect the main principles of current doctrine—emphasizing the ability to react quickly and effectively by the use of heliborne reserves. Unlike other rules systems, we have not allowed for the "artillery barrage" of helicopters while loading/unloading in a LZ. This is because, although a game turn may run from 15-30 minutes, the actual time period in which the helicopters will be low enough and stationary enough to serve as vulnerable targets to artillery is generally too short for an effective artillery response to be called in.

Short-Range Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction

The availability to all modern armies of Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) such as the Scud and FROG 7 is another important modern development. Although capable of detonating chemical, nuclear, or conventional warheads hundreds of kilometers into the enemy’s rear, on closer study SRBMs are very unimpressive. They are extremely inaccurate (the Scud-B missile has a standard deviation of over 1 kilometer) and, as the Gulf War demonstrated, relatively easy to shoot down using advanced Western missiles. Thus our game rules have been relatively unkind to SRBMs.

However, one of the principal uses of SRBMs in real life is the delivery of chemical and nuclear munitions. Although chemical weapons have been in existence since World War One, their use was not considered by SPEARHEAD for the obvious reason that they were not used in World War II. Due to the growing frequency of chemical weapon use in wars between developing nations, we felt it imperative to account for the possible use of chemical agents. Our chemical weapon rules are designed to be easily playable and focus on the operational effects of chemical weapon use—troop route, closure of avenues of approach, etc.

All that can be said for the inclusion of tactical nuclear weapons in the game is that they exist, and very well might have been used by the West in any European land war. We suggest that the nuclear weapon rules are best used in 1980s Europe campaign games, with the provision that their availability hinges on whether or not the Warsaw Pact forces initiate use of chemical weapons.

Modern Spearhead Rear CoverData Cards

Even a casual glance at the Data Cards will alert the gamer that the values therein are not compatible with those listed in the original World War II rules. The simple reason for this incompatibility is technological change. Few gamers would attempt the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War with an exactly identical rules system owing to the large technological changes between 1815 and 1865. The changes in technology are even more extreme between World War II and the present day. The difference between a WWII tank and a modern tank must be considered an order of magnitude; indeed, it is difficult to fit even the T55 and the M1A2 in the same scale. And yet, because MSH is designed to cover the time period of war called "modern"— approximately 1956 to the present day—we had to fit the T55 and M1A2 into the same scale and have the game remain playable. After several failed efforts at a Data Card scale compatible with World War II; we reached the painful conclusion that it could not be done without sacrificing both realism and playability throughout the entire modern era.

A second consideration in our development of the data cards that merits mentioning was our examination of specific features of tank technology and tactical doctrine. A close look at the Data Cards will reveal that weapons systems often identified as identical (or nearly identical) in other rule sets are not necessarily so in MSH. This is most noticeable when Soviet Tank platoons are compared with the equivalent Western Platoon. Many other rules systems have categorized these with identical (or nearly identical) performance and abilities. Our research, however, showed us otherwise.

Most western tank analysts over 20 of the last 30 years consistently considered Soviet Tanks as technologically equal or superior to their Western equivalents, at least until the early ‘80s, in firepower, defense, and mobility. Although this view made for exciting wargaming, the poor performance of Soviet-equipped Arab units in the various Arab-Israeli wars cast doubt on whether Soviet tanks were as good as those of the West. A closer examination of the inferior performance of Soviet tanks shows that in all significant engagements, Soviet-trained units performed worse than their Western-trained opponents did, even when the Soviet equipment had technological advantages in firepower or mobility. This inferior performance of Soviet tanks is partly a result of the tactical doctrine used to deploy them, and partly a result of technological advantages enjoyed by Western tanks that are often not considered in tank analyses.

Soviet tank doctrine does not emphasize "first fire," and Soviet tankers rely on a system that takes longer to sight and fire their weapon. This gives Western tankers, who do emphasize first fire, a tremendous advantage in a tank battle. Moreover, the Soviet automatic loaders provide only half the ROF of most Western tanks, and Soviet tanks carry considerably smaller amounts of ammunition than their Western counterparts. This gives the Western tanks an advantage in the drawn-out, operational tank battles MSH is concerned with. Soviet tanks are often lauded for their small silhouette, but their smaller size actually makes them much more likely to "brew up" when hit and makes it harder for them to achieve hull down. The Soviets use smaller tanks only because they are cheaper and because their doctrine does not allow them good use of terrain advantages.

When these factors are considered in the context of MSH, the result is less effective Soviet units (platoons). The drop-off in performance becomes less noticeable in the 1980’s with the advent of upgrades to the weaponry and armour of the earlier T-64 and T-72, the T-80, and ultimately the T-90 (although with the collapse of the Soviet Union very few of the latter seem to have entered service).

The ‘90s have seen a new generation of Western tanks and a new benchmark in armored excellence. But the capabilities of Western tanks, including the often-cited example of the Gulf War, are sometimes overrated, or in many cases unconfirmed. Most of the engagements in the Gulf were fought at long range at night in open desert, optimizing the US advantage of thermal sights. In Western Europe the average engagement range is less than 1000 meters. In the Gulf the Iraqi armor was T72s (export versions of the cheapest modern Soviet tank) and Type 69s (Chinese copies of the T-54 with upgrades), both using home-brewed ammunition, not advanced Soviet rounds. The question of whether a Soviet 125mm gun using the proper ammunition could kill an M1A1 has not been answered on the battlefield… yet!

In our view, the greatest flaw inherent in most modern warfare games is that they attempt to be too technically precise. Technical precision leads to two extremes: the invincible chobham-plated M1 or Challenger tank, invulnerable to all foes; and the "if it moves it dies" syndrome where theoretical accuracy and effectiveness become the rule and play stagnates into an exchange of fire at 4000 meters. The worst games combine the two. Technical precision is an illusion — for many modern weapon systems, it is not known what their true effects would be under combat conditions.


We believe we have managed to find the right balance for the various weapons and systems, and more importantly, created new rules mechanics that successfully mesh with and expand upon the core rules of SPEARHEAD. We hope you will agree with us and we wish you many victories.

© 2000 Alex Macris & John Moher

Last Updated on Friday, 19 March 2010 14:39
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