World of Tanks

Battlefield view
Tanks are a long distance weapon, you know. They are best used in concert with one another to provide cover and overwatch fire, and are best placed in a covered or hull-down position where their profile is reduced to the minimum. Tanks should never travel alone; they should always advance with supporting vehicles on their flanks.

That’s pretty much what I said to my teammates that Saturday morning. However, I may have typed it a little more tersely. Something like, “%#$&@ idiots. Y R U in the open w/o support?

I watched as the majority of them rushed across the field to be picked off in the open by well-placed enemy tanks, and turned into smoldering wrecks that dotted the battlefield. Don’t these people know anything about basic tank doctrine, I wondered? Well, probably not. This is the internet, after all.

Still, I want to shout out. Tanks are not close-range weapons. Or rather, they weren’t intended to be. This isn’t paintball. You can’t exactly sneak around in 25 or 30 tons of metal. But you can be clever and use the terrain to your advantage: peek carefully around corners, over rises, and stay hidden in bushes while you wait.

But there they were – half the team racing towards the enemy flag like heavy-metal Rambos, ignoring terrain, elevation, cover, overwatch or even one another. And paying the price. Boom! Another teammate in flames. You might have heard me swearing as you walked by the house that morning.

That left me with three others out of an initial 15 to guard the base; trying to cover all possible paths of approach, stay hidden and stay alive. And pick off the enemy, now bold enough to move forward. An enemy which still had nine intact vehicles, including a very active artillery and two tank destroyers, each with two kills each already. A team that seemed to understand how to play much better than our side.

We lost that one.

Good thing it’s just a game and the losers merely have to wait it out until the match ends, then come to life and play again. When there’s no other penalty for dying except to wait, you won’t learn anything.

Start positions
Ah well, a single game last only 15 minutes, and often less in an aggressive match, so maybe – I hoped – the next team  – randomly chosen from among those in the queue – would be better. More experienced. Cautious. Less stupid.

The luck of the draw says it has to happen now and then. There were more than 23,000 people on the server that morning, and it’s just one of several around the world. Surely out of 23,000, there have to be another 13 or 14 with common sense who don’t play this as just an arcade game… okay, it is a game, but surely not all games have to be played like action games.

The game, of course, is World of Tanks (WoT). It puts you in control of a wide range of WWII-era  armoured vehicles – tanks, tank destroyers and self-propelled artillery (SPGs). There are no infantry, no towed artillery, no halftracks or APCs. No helicopters or airplanes. Just the armour. You are the driver, loader and gunner, combined. One vehicle at a time, of course.

WoT is remarkable for several reasons. First of all, it’s free. Yes, there are in-game purchases and premium (paid) accounts, and you can buy vehicles and garage slots or special ammo, but they’re optional: not necessary to have a fun game. You can earn points towards many of those goals through play, albeit slowly. You never have to pay – unless you start to get serious enough to want that extra camouflage netting, or coated optics…

Second, it has a remarkably good real-world physics engine behind it. Not only are the playing fields well-crafted and rendered in a realistic, 3D fashion, but effects like shots, hits and explosions are realistic and calculated according to well-crafted models of ballistics and armour. Plus the tank models look pretty good.

garage shot

Seeing your shell fall below the target as it travels more than 400 metres reminds the player about the real-world effects of gravity. The light, smoke and water all look real. You can hear your engine rumble, hear the sound of the treads clanking on the cobblestones. Your enemy’s tank explodes rather gratifyingly.

Vehicles have realistic values for weight, speed, armour (and sloping), loading time, optics, firing speed, shell penetration, turret traverse, crew experience and visibility. When you get hit or hit another tank, several things get calculated: potential for fire, explosion, interior spalling, track and engine damage, crew damage and deaths… it’s really quote comprehensive. Effects are calculated for damage when you drive into water, over a cliff or ram another vehicle, too.

Zoomed view
Pretty remarkable when you consider all the data that’s being juggled: 30 players in a 3D world; their movement, ammo status, condition, visibility, line of sight and so much more all calculated and tracked simultaneously. And dozens – maybe hundreds – of simultaneous matches being played.

Then there’s the tech development tree. As a new player you start with a small group of tier one tanks: mostly mid-late 1930s vehicles; modestly gunned and armoured. But that’s okay because your opponents have similar vehicles. Battles are organized by tier. You won’t get placed with any tanks more than two tiers above yours, although it’s best when both teams are all in the same tier or no more than one level apart.

tech tree

Teams can be as many as 15 players per side, but sometimes (rarely) can be fewer – this past weekend I played in some eight- and ten-tank teams. Both sides always start with the same number, but sometimes connection problems drop a player, or one side gets the Chinese spammer who doesn’t play; just sits there seeing messages that attempt to lure players to a malware site. This leaves the team a tank (sometimes two) short and the spammer vehicles are easy pickings for the enemy.

Spammers of this sort ruined World of Warcraft for me, and may one day do the same for WoT. You can report them, but the administrators don’t seem to do anything to stop them. Maybe they can’t.

As you gain experience – one of the three currencies in the game – you get to use accumulated points towards improving the vehicles – upgraded tracks, engine, radio, turret and gun – and researching a higher-level or simply better more advanced vehicle. The upgrade tree is very historical although in real life, it wasn’t always a simple case of going from model A to model B to model C. Many times models were developed simultaneously and independently, sometimes in competition, or to achieve specific goals.
Three to one odds

Experience allows you access to higher-tier tanks, too. You soon have tier two, then three, and so on, in your garage, up to tier 10. Big, powerful machines at tier 10. It takes a long time to get to that level, though, unless you either have a premium account or you buy in-game gold so you can purchase upgrades and research.

Like with role-playing games (World of Warcraft and Borderlands, for example), as you gain higher-level capacity, so does the enemy. So in actual play, there is no qualitative difference between battles at any given tier or level. Or shouldn’t be.

Tier 1 vs tier 1 is, relatively, pretty much the same as T5 vs T5. Yes, your tank is bigger, stronger and faster at T5 than at T1 – but so are your opponents’ so the odds are balanced. The only really difference comes when your lower-tier tank gets placed in a battle with an overwhelming number of higher-tier enemy tanks. Aside from the sheer hubris of running around in a T-34 or Tiger, that is.

I’ve had the uncomfortable position of being the only T1 in a battle of T2 and T3 tanks. My T1 can seldom dent a T3’s armour. But in a battle of T1 and T2 tanks, I can hope to hold my own. Assuming I play with some common sense and caution.

And, yes, you can fire on and even kill teammates. Not a good idea, mind you, but it happens.
End of game score

Tanks come in three sizes: light, medium and heavy. In theory, lighter tanks are faster and have better range of sight, so should be used as fast scouts to identify enemy positions so heavier armour can clear them out, often from a distance. Some heavier armour should be close behind the lighter tanks to provide support, too. but since players can pick what to start with, most go for the armament: big guns. Not a lot of us choose light tanks.

Once on the field, few players pay any attention to other players and simply do what they please – advance, hide, defend or simply sit there. It’s usually less a battle than a random collection of micro-fights. Key points like central hills or major buildings get heavily contested, but seldom concertedly, with a plan.
in-game map
There is a small, expandable map at the bottom right of the screen that shows all known friendly and enemy units. This is what it looks like at the start, before anyone moves. Only friendly tanks are identified at this point.

Enemy units need to be spotted by the player or by another teammate in radio range. Friendly units have to be within radio range – which can be small for some tier one tanks. Better radios are upgrades that can be purchased in the tech tree, but not all tanks offer significantly better radio range range as upgrades.

The enemy flag is show at the bottom right. In between is a large central hill, with various obstacles like small villages, water and woods.

The green markers in the expanded map, above, show the starting locations of our team’s tanks. The image below shows what this looks like from the battlefield; above and behind my tank.

Ready for battle

Here’s the situation a few turns later, with some enemy tanks spotted advancing along the west:


The red tank at the lower left is probably hiding in bushes and shooting at unwary opponents. Three are in the open, but then so are at least that many of my team. Here’s what that situation looks like from the ground, with my tank on defence, hidden in the bushes in the foreground.

Mid game view

None of the enemy tanks shown in red on the in-game map can be seen by my tank crew. Yet. They’re coming. Only six enemy tanks spotted so far, one killed – that leaves eight unaccounted for. Are they doing base defence? Coming up the centre? or on the right?

These screenshots are mostly shown from a third-person view, but you can look at the game from a first-person (through the tank’s viewport) view, and zoom in close with a “sniper” view as the next image shows. Now you can see an enemy tank – outlined in red – has advanced almost to our flag. The markers around the tank are my targetting reticule and ammunition status. I hadn’t been spotted and was about to fire a shell into the oncoming enemy.

Enemy spotted through the bushes

We have three kills to the enemy’s four and the enemy’s action has shifted to the northeast… that’s our flagpole on the left. The oncoming vehicle is an enemy tank destroyer, by the way – a T18 – out in front, without any support or spotters. It would be smoking wreckage shortly. Killed not by me, but by a teammate who was able to shoot the T18’s weaker backside while it tried to trade shots with me.

Problem is: some players don’t look at their map, and others close it to get more screen landscape. That leaves you blind to enemies your teammates spot. Or maybe the map confuses and disorients them, so they hide it.

There are two basic battle types: capture the flag, and encounter. In CTF, a side wins by either having tanks in the enemy’s home circle for long enough to capture it, or eliminating all the opposing side’s vehicles. In encounter battles, there’s one neutral flag/home zone either side can capture, and of course eliminating the enemy wins, too.

Maps are also tier-limited. You get about four maps at the first three tiers, then new maps as you progress upwards. That means having to learn all over the terrain, the hiding places, the dangerous water and cliffs. Personally, I like the lower-tier maps best, but then, I like fast, light tanks too, just like I liked fast, light motorcycles rather than the heavy brutes. But I haven’t played the highest level maps or tanks yet, either.

However beautiful and fun it is, WoT isn’t a realistic simulator of tank doctrine. First of all, there are no infantry and the primary role of armour is to support infantry or to create the situation that infantry can exploit and consolidate.

In the ruins

There are no mines. No air support. Buildings are empty: no civilians, no farm animals, no snipers or AT teams hiding in the rubble. No fuel restrictions and generally enough ammo onboard to last a whole game. And while your tank can crush or shoot cars and cars, walls and fences, some buildings it can’t damage at all, and some low rubble piles prove insurmountable obstacles for no apparent reason.

it’s been a long time since I read Liddell Hart or Heinz Guderian on tank strategy. In the days when I played paper wargames with my cohorts, most of us felt it was de rigeur to read the works of the great tacticians and military strategists and be educated in the nature of war. My library in those days contained many dozens of books on military history. And when we played, we often argued whether we were applying the theories and practices expounded in those books.

In a WoT game, I feel more like it’s the Wild West, with armour instead of horses. Tactics? Strategy? We don’t need no stinkin’ tactics! Charge!

taking cover

Tanks should advance (or move) in groups to provide mutual support and covering fire, and to concentrate firepower. Most players work in isolation, often simplistically: move-shoot, usually alone. Sometimes race about frantically and shoot at nothing. Players who rush toward the enemy base alone get destroyed. Some learn. not all.

Veteran players know each map’s every nook and cranny: hiding places, potential traps, steep hills and dangerous corners. They know which bushes are good places to avoid being spotted while still giving a good view of the battlefield. It’s hard to find a place veterans won’t find you.

Caught in the open

In some games, I’ve seen almost my whole team rush forward helter-skelter, leaving our own base undefended except for one of two of us. No thought for advance in depth or a comprehensive defence with overlapping lines of sight.

I’ve seen an entire enemy team rush forward on one flank, a mass of firepower and support, wiping out my teammates as they advanced – only to lose the game to a light tank that slipped up the other side and took the undefended base. It’s a game where you need to balance both defence and aggression.

To be fair, this may change with those organized groups who practice and play together as teams. But in the average, random game: mosh pit.

starting shot

Tank destroyers, too, are defensive weapons, too, not frontline weapons. They’re supposed to kill enemy tanks spotted by others, not race to meet the enemy and duel it out. They’re support weapons, not aggressive weapons. They are powerful, but with a fixed gun;they turn slowly and often have weak armour on their back and sides. They need support tanks to watch their flanks.

Artillery is slow to move, target and fire – it should stay well back, and have one or two tanks nearby to defend it. Not rush forward to battle mobile vehicles. Too often I’ve seen artillery left alone in a corner while other vehicles race ahead, leaving it helpless when an enemy approaches. Or watched it run to the front. And get blasted.

And ramming one another is not a historical tactic. Seen that happen in games way too many times.  I can’t think of a single historical battle where tanks deliberately rammed one another. But in most WoT battles it happens, and sometimes it’s a favoured tactic among some those who can’t grasp what tanks are meant for.

Tanks are mobile and should be able to move and regroup as the situation changes. In real war, tanks seldom stayed still and traded shots. But in WoT, it’s the OK Corral with stationary metal monsters firing rounds across small distances. Players sit and fire at one another until someone finally explodes.
enemy tank

Players often don’t seem to appreciate the difference between an armoured vehicle’s side or back armour vs its front armour. I’ve seen players turning to drive away from the enemy instead of using reverse. Why reverse? Because it keeps the more heavily armoured and sloped front towards the enemy; doesn’t expose the weak backside. Plus it keeps the gun facing toward the enemy. Only turn around when you can’t take fire from the enemy’s direction.

I often see players firing at nothing, or running trees over – giving away their positions to enemy spotters. One newbie mistake is firing your gun as soon as battle starts – sometimes hitting a teammate (and in some cases, killing his or her tank).

I’ve seen tanks sitting on hills for a better line of sight but that works both ways. Exposed tanks are easy targets. Here I have an enemy tank in my sights. He thought he was in a good spot but it was exposed to someone hidden in the bushes like I was.
Enemy spotted

The scenery can be drop-dead gorgeous, too. Trees waving in the wind, water rippling, the chiaroscuro of light and shadow on walls and in woods. If the developers would ever listen, I would suggest that maps outside the tier groupings get randomly but infrequently inserted into play at other tiers. Give everyone a chance to try all of the maps with different levels of tank.

Perhaps allow single players or platoons to explore maps and engage in their own training exercises without having to always fight a battle. And finally, have a free-for-all mode where there are no restrictions by tier: anyone can join in any vehicle.

Zoomed view

It’s far from perfect and sometimes very frustrating, especially when you’re teamed with gung-ho types who ignore ever basic rule of tank doctrine in the books. But sometimes it’s fun, tense and worth the investment of 10-15 minutes. And it’s a sure smile when you see the victory screen  after a particularly tough match.

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