Tuesday, January 21, 2014

War Games Design Issues...

A recent posting by Big Andy of 'Glorious Soldiers' though not lengthy, posed some interesting, and, speaking for myself as a war gamer, important issues.   One of these had to do with the kinds of rule sets that subsumed regiments or battalions into larger formations, brigades and above, that have little 'unit personality' to them.  This struck a chord.
ACW firefight between two 27-figure regiments at short range.
Armed with smoothbore muskets - it must be early in the war - volley groups are 6.
Die Range is 4 that is pip scores greater than 4 are ignored..
I have long wondered why it is I've never had the hardness of heart to transform my Airfix ACW regiments and battalions into brigades.  As brigades tended to take on the name of their commander (retaining such names well after said commander had moved or passed on) one could argue that [a] they formed a de facto tactical unit, and [b] they did have a unit - or strictly speaking, formation - character of their own.  So why not change? 
Result of shooting.  USA did well, scoring 10 hits!
CSA shooting is below par -  only 5 hits.

The reason for my conservatism, I think, that 'formation character' is still made up, in part, from the character of its constituent regiments and battalions, along with their respective commands.  

The 'impersonal'  style of rule set, such as Volley and Bayonet, I've never really cottoned to - at least not for 'pre-industrial' armies - though I actually thought highly of the DB* concept qua concept.  A friend saw in DBM a board game with miniatures, and I believe he wasn't far wrong.  But Volley and Bayonet I never could get my head around.  I'll be honest here and say I rarely had any luck with that rule set - some very improbable things would happen (I mean, really WTF country) - and found I wasn't learning much of anything, neither.  Some of the game mechanics struck me as so artificial as to make it impossible to rationalize in terms of what might be happening internal to the unit or formation, or indeed to the situation I was looking at as a battlefield context.  I mean, what's with this 'go stationary' thing? I didn't like them because they just didn't suit me.  sometimes that's the way it goes.

USA's 10 hits are divided into a group of 8 plus a remainder group of 2.
The 8 dice rolled give 5 distinct pip scores, ignoring duplicates; the 2 group rolls
double-1 - 1 distinct pip score only.  1 plus 5 = 6 casualties.  The CSA's 5-dice group
very fortunately comes up with 5 casualties!
I've been looking at Pike and Shotte lately, and there is no doubt they produce nice armies with individual battalia.  They are quite flexible about how you present your armies, though with an over-riding 'envelope' (if you like) of footprint ('base') per block or battle line 'units' (I won't go into the authors' idiosyncratic use of the word 'unit').  Even then you can adapt to your own requirements.

The first moments of the fire-fight lose the USA 5 figures; the CSA 6.
As these losses are greater than 10% for both sides, both would require a morale check,
but for our purposes, let us suppose they 'pass'.
There are a number of matters therein though that I might have problems with.  For one, a reasonable sized Pike and Shotte army demands a hell of a lot of figures.  I bought quite a few Revell 30YW figures in the mid-1990s and wrote my own, rather old-school, rules for them. That rule set I wish I still had. Then came DBR.  It seemed to be enjoying a popularity in this part of the world (I started using my Byzantines to stand in for Ottoman Turks late 17th century).  I delayed and delayed converting my plastics to DBR, partly because I would have had 900AP of Imperialists and 750AP of Swedes, but mainly because I was afraid that what did happen, would happen.

The firefight continues.  Losses have reduced the volley-groups
to 3 each (the US extra figure is ignored).  USA scores 3+1=4 hits; CSA, presumably
blinded by smoke, score none at all!
It was like magic.  Almost the moment I made the change, re-basing my figures, local interest in DBR evaporated practically to nothing.  It was if Fate, Kismet or Karma had been waiting with bated breath and sand-filled sock for me to make the commitment.  Yet that loss of interest was understandable.  It seemed to many of us that DBR was wanting a lot of further development.  Mind you, wargamers' attitudes also counted for a great deal.  The designer tended to think in terms of region and periods, and quite explicitly stated as much. Having a lot of sympathy with the designer's view, I formed the impression that what was uppermost in war gamers' minds was ... ***COMPETITIONS**** (think bells and whistles, here).

The 4 hits scored by the USA work out to 3 casualties - or
to be precise - 3 fewer figures remaining with the CSA colours.  Reduced now
to 18 figures - two-thirds strength - the CSA might be well advised
(supposing it passed its morale check) to pull out.  The USA have no need to check morale
this turn...
It was the war gamers' complete and utter refusal to see DBR in any other than ****COMPETITION**** terms (do you detect a note of scorn here?) that led to the long hiatus for about 10 years (a little bit of a revival has taken place since then - not that DBR had undergone much refinement in the interim).  I'll give an instance of the way ****COMPETITION**** war gamers think.  The 16th Century Muscovite army list included wielders of firearms that we might call arquebuses. These hadn't the range of later firearms, and might have been classed as (I) - 'Inferior' - but because these guys were armed with an axe, and historically (I gather) were not above getting up close and personal, they were classed as (S) - 'Superior.'  This gave them a 200-pace 'musketry' range.  I place the word 'musketry' deliberately in quotes, for reasons that should soon become apparent.
Pike & Shotte rule book, Volley and Bayonet profiles
DBR Swedish foote.
Of course, distant combat tended to be discussed in the rule set in terms of  'shooting' and 'shooting ranges'. But it seemed to the punters a bit strong that the Russian dudes should be able to foot it with and even defeat enemies armed with technically superior weapons like firelocks or whatever.  Bearing in mind this argument was being waged in the context of early 16th Century guys taking on 17th century guys, it seemed to me that the designers' decision could be justified even so.  If you were facing an enemy known to be the bloody-minded sort not apt to keep their distance, 200 paces distance might not seem very much separation.  You might be much less apprehensive of incoming bullets than of incoming Muscovites armed with axes.  Do you know, no one, not one single person, would give this argument a moment's consideration?
V & B profiles are 3-inch square. or 3-inch by 1.5-inch.  Though the minimum
equivalent profiles should be 8cm square or 8cm by 4cm, and would accommodate my
DBR basing a little better, the figures would look bally thin.
But if I go the Pike and Shotte way (please pardon the lengthy, though no doubt fascinating, digression), it will require another change of bases (no easy task) and my Swedish army will be able to field precisely one Brigade of 3 battalia.  I suppose it will do, but in Pike and Shotte terms I'll be looking at a small army...
I have to admit, though, that crammed on this way and photographed
 from a low angle does give us a dramatic picture... But maybe
15 'pikes' per stand and 10 shotte per 'half-stand' would look the part...?
 Then there are some peculiarities that I would certainly accept for solo play - but as a game of skill between two or more people?  War gamers sometimes talk of a 'long run' when discussing the vagaries of the dice. But in a given war game, there is no 'long run'.  Some situations are more crucial than others, for one thing, but even with fistsful of dice, there are too few rolls to constitute a long run within a single game.  In my view, if rules designers choose to take out of a player's hands control of his own army - even just a sizable chunk of it - there has to be a very good reason.  Volley and Bayonet does this without sufficient reason  in my view, as does General de Brigade.  The net effect is simply to piss me off.  I have an uneasy feeling Pike and Shotte, with some very idiosyncratic game mechanics, might turn out to be Poke and Shitte.  But I hope not...
For play testing purposes, this is probably what I'll do.
I still think very highly of these Revell figures.
The accompanying ACW pictures are by way of illustrating the shooting rules I use for my 'Horse and Musket' type games.  I've kept things pretty basic and simple, just to illustrate the mechanic.  Very similar, but not precisely the same, as used by Charles Grant's The War Game.  The 'Die Range' concept comes from the Wizard's Quest board game.

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  1. I must admit I find many modern rule sets depersonalise units and the just end up being counters / tokens , think this is why I prefer O.S. rules

    1. They can be very attractively and beautifully presented tokens, it has to be said, yet I agree: tokens they remain. Mind you, I like Command Decision, in which the stands are just as much tokens. I can't say I'm consistent about this!

  2. I've made my peace with that sort of thing - probably because I play so many Command & Colours games. But, horses for courses.

    1. Sometimes you take what you can get. For several years I was playing nothing but DBM, an OK set of rules for what they are. But after 10 years of this I was getting damnably bored with it, not helped by continual emendments that i could never keep up with. Fact is, hereabouts very few war gamers do what I do, and, being not very adaptable, I'll probably end up going solo. Not that I'm complaining. Much.

  3. For myself, I shy away from rules that involve elements or multi-based figures. I play very rarely but always enjoy pre-1980's rule sets more.

    1. As do I. For all the research and refinements that have been tried and discussed since, I don't think much real advance has been made since then to reconcile playability and realism. I can see the point of multibased units, though, and use them myself for certain periods (especially WW2 and Ancients), but they seem to lack ... something. Character, I think.

  4. When I game now all I do is 1:1 ratio gaming if I can but at the weekend we played fie and fury and all you got was the 1st Michigan but 40 figures represented 1600 figures and for the big game that what most people like and I'm fine with that as they're not my figures.

    1. Sure, and I've played Fire and Fury myself, and found it quite playable (you need so bally many cannon, but!!). I do have a little bit of a problem seeing Brigades of Louisiana Tigers... The multi-base games are fine for big battles, though I prefer the Old School approach there, too...

  5. I think as Francis said it's all about scale. I was just reading Paddy Griffiths on unit sizes in the ACW and he notes that a battle-hardened battalion in either army would be lucky to muster 300 effectives for a fight. A brigade of 3-6 regiments that size or even smaller is really just a collection of companies, but as Griffith notes, given the dynamics of the horse and musket battlefield, 100-300 men is perhaps the optimal size for command and control. In which case, a miniatures game which allows you to represent brigades really should stand or fall on its command and control rules. For me, I like the TFL "Elephant" rules which rate commanders by their ability and give them so many command pips to spend per turn, with each pip effecting one unit within their brigade.

    Incidentally, I have your H&M rules printed, I should give them a go this weekend.
    Good post.

    1. Good luck with them! Let me know of any queries corrections or ideas that crop up. My notions about calling my ACW units 'Brigades' was based pretty much on similar thinking to Paddy Griffiths. Fire and Fury does this, of course. But ... no. Can't do it. It may simply be that my ACW armies have already gone through the transformation from 14-figure inf and 10-fig cav units to the present 27 (with some variation) inf and 15 (US) and 23 (CS) fig cavalry units. This was getting on for 30 years ago. Too late to go messing about now...
      Cheers, oh, and thanks!

  6. Ion Intresting stuff. I played a ot of V&B in the 1990s mostly FPW though some Napoleonic too. ansd probably wouldn't use it now and never- as written for a Britsh Army though it did seem to mostly work for large armies of conscripts .
    Of course nomenclature differs too .
    A british Brigade for most of the 19th century would be mostly 3 or 4 battalions- not usually from the same regiment. A French or say Prussian brigade would be most often 2 regiments each of muliple battalions. Thus Europen brigades were on average stronger than British ones - but perhaps less able to manovre- V&B was not good at this kind of detailed difference for say the Napoleonic or Crimean Wars.
    I'm still of the opinion that DBR is the worst commercial ruleset ever published- of those that I've tried . Too generic and too abstract in a period of great change in military matters it sought to over- simplify and obscure these changes to support an already (Gawd knows why) popular format "Making History fit my rules" of the worst water.

    1. In many ways, Andy, I agree with your judgement of DBR, but always felt that it was really published too soon, when further development work and testing ought to have been carried out. The designers were quite clear in their attitude that the set was designed for battles between historical opponents. They made no effort, intended no effort, to reconcile the respective abilities and characteristics of non-historical opponents. Hence the Muscovite thing. That quite up front statement seems to have been flatly ignored by wargamers.

      Actually that is not quite true or fair. Locally, DBR has undergone a little bit of a revival in recent years, but you tend to find much fewer anachronistic battles taking place. For some years after interest dried up (c.1999) a friend and I played occasional ECW games (my 30YW guys standing in usually for Roundheads), and I do recall enjoying 80YW games between Spanish and Dutch very early on. Those games were fun.

    2. With DBR I didn't get the unhistorical opponents thing as I only used it with ECW troops where it failed dismally.
      What screwed it up was the complete and utter lack of period unit structure- or indeed any unit structure at all. except for thecfiures there was no indication of ECW- they may as well have been Romans and celts not only that it was in the end merely a dice rolling excercise- tedium upon tediumk off to the pub said I.. and standing not upon the order of my going went!

    3. Quite understandable! I didn't get quite that feeling myself - not as strongly at any rate - but from a historical perspective, the flavour did become insipid after a while. You could still create regiments and battalions, but there was no incentive to do so.

      My first experience with DBM showed a durability and gradual disintegration of long battle lines that I'd never seen before, and which I found impressive. Gradually that 'look' disappeared into the 'bitty' nature we get now.

      Our first games with DBR was with the 80YW - Spanish tercios vs Dutch battalia (chosen because they were the easiest armies available given the limited lists at the time). There was every reason to try Spanish tercios (I did quite well with the Spanish, actually), but of course we were using 'substitute' figures in 15mm, which I was never going to build. I was much more interested in the 30YW.

      We did have a few games of that eventually - my Imperialists vs French - and there I concluded that a 500AP game played better than 400AP partly because the army 'mix' was better, but it represented largish armies better as well. But there was no getting past, after a while, the largely characterless armies, and some very peculiar openings available for your 'rules technician' types. You know them: the ones who extract the last ounce of advantage from the game design (and the ones who run fastest to the umpire if they mislike something you have done that's caught them napping...) historicity be damned.

  7. As usual an interesting post.

    I have to admit that we have played a lot of V&B and generally like the way they cope with large battles. Interestingly many detractors of the rules point to the lack of controls on a general.

    On of the reasons that many gamers have returned to "Old School" is that one can feel something for each unit. One can put more of ones own idiosyncracies into larger (and fewer) units. Although the same can also be said of skirmish forces.

    I was thinking what a coincidence it was that we seem to use the same firing mechanism for our own "simple" rules but on further thought I'm sure I stole the idea from you. (thanks - much better that having to keep deducting from 6)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Prince Lupus. You know, I thought I had invented the basic combat system I use, and only looking at my copy of Charles Grant (that had sat on my shelf months since its previous perusal) did I realise more than a germ of his own system had been already planted in my mind. The Die range thing I stole from Wizard's Quest, and liked because I felt that it would be nice if sixes weren't always the best roll...

      My attitude to rule sets probably comes down to what I want from them. Many rule sets that I dislike as 2-player games have to do with whether or not we are looking at a game of skill between two players, and the extent to which the outcome is guided by what amounts to caprice. In this last respect I have some uneasiness about Pike and Shotte. But what I dislike in terms of 2-player games I might find ideal for solo play.

      The DB* rule sets I have long regarded as having good 'solo' potential, and the very things that I disliked about General de Brigade and suspect about Pike and Shotte qua 2-player game would recommend them as solo games.

  8. This is a good example of why there are so many rulesets.

    Your V&B comments are interesting as they are very different from my experience. I use V&B as an example of rules where a player has absolute control over his units. Up until they engage the enemy at least but that is the subordinates job to manage. Things like that stationary rule as explained in the design notes makes perfect sense to me, representing the sort of little things that are so hard to incorporate into tactical rules, the little accidents of ground too small to be model led of the table that a subordinate may make use of where he has had time to prepare but which become a surprise to a unique opportunity the move etc. I did find though that they were not satisfying as a small game. Essentially the player has to think about an move Divisions an think of those as his "units" not the individual stands.

    The Brigade as unit is interesting, in theory it makes sense to me, especially if you are play a game with say 20 brigades a side. At one time I did have a desire to fight that level of battle but not at the present. I dislike playing with a game where my "army" is just a small part of a larger battle which is happening off table I theory, so instead, I look for smaller campaigns and battles where a dozen regiments may be the entire force .

    To be honest though, these days I usually just want to " play the legend" so to speak, and thus having units and characters with on going histories and personalities of their own is a big part of the fun.

  9. I can understand a unit settling in place for the time being making the little preparations for defence as dictated by casual accidents of ground in the spot chosen, perhaps placing items on the ground in easy reach and what have you. But there must be a better expression for this, surely. At that, this sort of thing seems awfully local to be the concern of general command. Further, if that sort of thing really does belong to the period before the American Civil War, surely it would be a given for a unit standing in a locality for any length of time, especially one that has no reason to suppose there is any friends standing between it and the enemy.

    If I had such a rule it would certainly not depend in the player remembering to announce it. Rather, I would assume that the necessaries have taken place whenever the unit in question remains in place for a whole move - possibly even a half-move (bearing in mind the time scale).

    The 'full control' issue I can understand - and certainly for solo play that is a big consideration. For a game of skill between two players, I am less sure about that. Consider chess. You would think, wouldn't you, that players have total control of their respective armies. Well, actually... no! Most of the time you do, but even then that control is limited by your understanding of the situation. If you fail to see a 6-move combination that will lead to a losing game, then you 'control' is certainly less than optimal. A forcing line of play in one in which one side is pretty much subject to the dictates of the opponent. A king in check has to move or find some other way to get out of check. A piece or pawn pinned against the King is (more often than not) completely immobilized). The fight for the initiative can be a big part of the chess game.

    A friend, playing his only ever war game (ACW 'Charge!' type rule set) remarked that it seemed to take an enormous effort to do much of anything. I had the same feeling in my first few games. With experience we get better at it, and obtain the sense of total control. I'll leave the discussion here, but may take it up on my blog at some time.

    Fr the rest, I like your expression 'play the legend' - which I think is similar to my sense that war gaming is as much a story-telling activity as anything else. I believe that is why my ACW armies will remain primarily as they are. Brig-Genl Willett B. Allwright will continue to command his South Carolinians and Floridans ; and Maj-Genl Titus E. Canby will retain Pres. Lincoln's trust in important - if small scale - campaigns..

    1. Re control, I agree with what you say, I was only using the ter as opposed to a card or dice activation system where a general may do everything I his power and still never get to move any unit for a whole game. Requires a awful string of bad luck, often made worse by poor choices but I have seen it come close. Comp to that an o's set or via allow units to move subject to the rules, ground, previously decisions but especially the enemy's actions. I turns a contest of luck to one of skill. Like Che vs parches. (And yes skill can affect parches, I'd better stop there)

    2. You remind me - I'm digressing slightly - that there is a form of chess in which what you can move is determined by a die roll (1=pawn, 2=knight, 3=bishop, 4=rook, 5=queen, 6=king). I've never played it... :-)

  10. Highly interesting post, well worth a read

    1. Thanks, Al. It seems to have generated a bit of interest!

  11. (off topic) . . . I just noticed your comment on someone's initial "solo D&D Dungeon Crawl". If you are interested in such, I just re-started one earlier this month:


    As usual you should start at the beginning and read forward to understand everything.

    -- Jeff (inhaber of EvE)

  12. I had a bit of a look, Jeff. D-and-D isn't really my thing, but stories are. I gather this is not so much a participatory thing as light reading. Well, I'd be interested in seeing how the characters get on. And maybe kibitz a little ... :-)