Archive for April, 2011

Essence of a wargame – V

…part V and the concluding part of a two-part series…

For the others in this series, see: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV.

In this series I’ve been attempting to examine qualitative excellence under these headings:

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

This post draws some vague and unscientific conclusions from what’s gone before.

Excellence may be purely comparative; perhaps an ‘excellent’ game has to be outstanding or extremely good merely in comparison with other offerings. This may mean that an ‘excellent’ game under one paradigm might be only ‘good’ under another. For example, what do we think of La Grande Armee, a traditional hex-and-counter SPI game with an unmounted, minimalist board and very little chrome, compared with a new extravaganza like The Eagle and The Lion? Perhaps BoardGameGeek might supply a little help here, as it does have ratings for board games, so we can get an idea of what BGGers at least think of board wargames past and present.

A quick and dirty review of the top 100 wargames on BGG by rating gives the following frequency results by 5 year date bands (these dates being publication dates):

  • Before 1980:  5
  • 1980 – 84:  9
  • 1985 – 89:  6
  • 1990 – 94:  6
  • 1995 – 99:  4
  • 2000-04: 15
  • 2005-10: 55

As expected perhaps, the majority of the games listed were published in the last five years, but it’s noticeable that 20% are over 20 years old and 5% are even older. There are fewer from the 1990s than the 1980s, reflecting the demise of SPI and Avalon Hill presumably. Both Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader figure high up in the list, as does Britannia, even though these could be considered as more ‘old style traditional’ than exhibiting more recent design features. So we can perhaps conclude that ‘older paradigm’ wargames can stand the test of time.

I’ll now try to review the 4 headings I dreamt up, by looking across each of my three examples for any threads that seem relevant.

Convincing portrayal of topic

I think that the essence of this aspect is covered by the level of detail of the game, the quality and effectiveness of the chrome used, how the game is placed in its context, and the games’s historical or thematic authenticity. All these elements must gel together to convince the players that the topic is covered well. I don’t mean that the game has to have a lot of detail, or over-developed colourful pieces, excessive background or extraordinary adherence to historical reality. The design should cover all of these elements at an appropriate degree for the aim of the design. This will be different for a tactical game versus a strategic game, a short game versus a ‘monster’ game.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Players should feel that they are making relevant and believable decisions within realistic restrictions. There is a game design problem here, in that there will sometimes have to be a compromise between historicity and competitive game play; for example World War I and II games tend not to reflect accurately the vast allied resource superiority, nor the political intricacies and personality clashes of the personnel involved. Most wargames are two player zero sum games, so there tend to be monolithic, single points of command (one player) and the advantages of the bird’s eye view (total or near total knowledge).  However, the game should present players with appropriate strategic or tactical decision-making points.

Victory in the game doesn’t have to equate to historical victory, and departure from the historical approach can be appropriate in the interests of game play; on the other hand, I recall the Kasserine Pass scenario in Desert Steel, which imposes historical deployments and historical victory conditions on both sides, making it extraordinarily difficult for the Germans to win (even though they did historically, which looks like a very against-the-odds result) – an important lesson perhaps that sometimes you’re given a task well beyond your means, and soldiers often have to just get on with it – and can sometimes succeed against all expectations. Finally the actions of the players should write a believable historical or thematic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Here I think the game has to encourage, not just enable, appropriate game play within period or theme. It must also simulate one or more aspects of the topic extremely well or provide exemplary flavour or both. The game play should have an appropriate tempo for the type of game and its theme. The mechanics should succeed in presenting relevant and appropriate effects during the story, for example by punishing a-historic action, rather than laying down the law, or through other subtle constraint on the players, for example through sequence of play (see Unhappy King Charles for some good examples of this practice). In some cases, games have to use proxies for some of the variables, a typical example being the use of dice for fog of war or chance in combat. For a game to achieve excellence, proxies must have been carefully chosen, so that they do not introduce unwelcome side effects. For example the cards used in Commands and Colors are a proxie for various command control issues; however, they can have the side effect of randomly crippling one side, because there is no way to remedy bad card draws.

Appropriate level of challenge

For excellence a board wargame needs to be a competitive game with a significant element of skill. How the luck to skill balance is handled is very much a matter of approach and style. I would rateNapoleon’s Triumph – no luck – very highly, but also games like Paths of Glory, where there is an element of luck in the order in which cards are drawn and also dice-based Combat Results Table. My preference is for more skill and less luck, but the balance depends on topic. For more complex games with a steep or long learning curve it is useful to provide introductory scenarios or graded challenges to help beginners. Play balance is important in the interests of fairness, though in many games, if the experience is sufficiently good then somewhat surprisingly this may not be vital.

I’ve come to the end of this rather longer than expected series. I’m still not certain of the validity of the insights here, but I think it gives an idea of my own thinking along these lines.


Dutch border, January 1814

2 April 2011 was another Saturday Frome miniatures game. This time a Napoleonic outing on the Dutch – French border (hah, Belgium doesn’t exist yet!) in January 1814. The Prussians and Russians (Pete and James) are invading mother France (Mike, Richard and myself). We appoint Mike CinC on the grounds that neither of us want the loneliness of command. Rules are 2nd edition General de Brigade (complete with the appallingly bad proof-reading errors – I hadn’t realised that this included misplaced pages and no page numbers; and yet the rules were still published and sold to customers! That publisher will not be getting my custom.)

Stephen (our umpire) gives both sides a fairly minimal briefing – at least we both have the identical difficulty there! Our objective is to push back the Allies towards their side of the board (north), or at the very least stop them advancing. Later, we learn that the Allied objective is to get forces off the southern edge of the board.

Early morning mist obscures the Allied advance, but the French can hear hooves and general movement from the north. We’re deployed well back from the halfway mark with ‘Defend’ and ‘Hold’ orders. The 2 brigades of my 2nd Div are on the left and centre (one supporting 2 batteries of artillery). The centre consists of the aforementioned artillery and a 2 battalion brigade to its right. Our right flank rests on a village and fortress (!) and consists of the 6 battalions of 1st Div plus 2 batteries in the fortress. Since our objective is to attack, we first have to change our orders. This takes 4 turns, owing to crappy command dice rolls, even though the CinC is right next to the 2 Div commander and lead Brigade commander. In my view this is a major rules problem.

By the time we get our orders changed, the mist is lifting – we can now see what we’re up against, and it’s not a pretty sight. The enemy has had time not only to deploy well forward, but to swing virtually their entire force against our left and centre, avoiding our 6 battalions and 2 batteries on the right. As we haven’t been able to change our orders, the 1st Div on the right will take much of the rest of the battle getting into position on the enemy’s left flank. It’s my 2nd Division (7 battalions including 2 of conscripts, plus 2 batteries of 8 pdrs), ostensibly our attacking force, that will have to take the brunt of the enemy attack – 14 battalions of their 18, plus 4 cavalry units (including 2 cossacks). And I have attack orders!

The lead cossacks withdraw and the first lines of enemy infantry advance into effective range of our batteries. First shot of the first battery is 1 and 1 : result is ‘low on ammo, half effect for rest of game’. What a great start! We have ammo caissons in the fortress, but that’s on the right flank and these aren’t going to help in time. The second battery gets a 6 + 6, and the enemy’s brigade commander’s horse bolts to our lines – captured!

My lead brigade has to advance a little, because it has Engage orders now. I’ve deployed in mixed order with 3 up and 1 back, supporting with 2nd brigade from the rear. Eventually the reserve brigade in the centre will get orders to support the artillery batteries (300 metres away!), but our command rolls are still terrible, and this takes far too long.

Enemy dragoons on the left flank cannot charge my leftmost battalion, owing to a useful patch of icy ground, so I anchor the left on this position. The other 3 battalions advance as slowly as possible within my order restrictions. The dragoons charge our skirmishers, who evade behind the main line, and the left battalion of conscripts (having been brought up from the brigade’s second line) manages to form square in response. It rolls to stand; another 1 + 1, which means the battalion retreats! Fortunately the dragoons haven’t got the momentum to reach them, and the rest of the first line is on ice, which prevents cavalry charges. We’re taking casualties from enemy jaeger with rifles and then fight the lead battalions of line infantry. One battalion is forced to retreat, and I manage to extricate the other one (conscripts) in column of divisions, because enemy infantry columns on the flank attack my guns and not the infantry.

Third round of battery firing, my second battery also rolls 1 + 1, so now the whole concentrated artillery brigade is firing at half effect. This does not discourage the advancing Prussians and Russians. We manage to beat off two attacks and support from the flank with a light infantry battalion of the 2nd brigade, but both batteries are overrun. The brigade supporting from the right is stopped by direct attack from 2 more enemy columns, and is also threatened by enemy cavalry to the flank. Fortunately our own cavalry manage a fairly dubious charge in column which disperses an enemy battalion column, and the enemy cavalry fails its morale roll and has to retreat.

On the left flank I manage to change the lead brigade’s orders to Move and the Div orders to Defend for the last turn of the game, while the 2nd brigade is on Assault and re-takes half of the gun position (guns already spiked though). On the right, Richard’s troops are now starting to punish the Russians and will soon threaten to outflank their artillery on a hill in the centre.

So by the end of the game the Russians are in position to get *some* troops off the table, but we’ve forced the Allies to re-think their attack and are threatening to close off this gap and to outflank their left. Stephen says that technically the French have won marginally, having done a bit better than the French on the day. It doesn’t feel like a victory to us – pretty much honours even – both sides could claim a marginal victory I think.

It was a very enjoyable game, though the French felt unduly ham-strung by crippled artillery and very poor command rolls. The Allies were affected quite a lot by having to start their light cavalry at the back of their columns (this was a historical affectation apparently), so that hampered the speed of their advance.

Essence of a wargame – IV

…part IV of a two-part series…

SPI’s La Grande Armee

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is an old hex-and-counter strategic game. It’s one of the better SPI strategic games with some good but simple mechanics for army movement (breaking large units down to divisions, then stacking and recombining for combat; d6 with possible strength point loss for forced marches), supply (separate attackable supply units and depots), and Combat Results Table combat resolution. Nowadays it’d have lots of cards and funny dice, but probably to no better effect. It gives a good feel for Napoleonic strategy, with the French having to do a heck of a lot to win – 1805, 06, 07 and 09 scenarios (from memory). Stacking and unstacking restrictions and simple combat and movement strength variations give players the opportunity to use the armies in a way that feels historical. High score in this department, despite its lack of modern colour.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

French divisions – in game and in history – could march long and fast, then combine to form very powerful stacks modified positively by the French marshals, so sweeping Napoleonic manoeuvres were definitely not only possible in both, but also necessary for the French to achieve their decisive victories. For the Austrians, Russians and Prussians there are the strategic choices about whether to rush reserves up to support relatively weak forward forces or to march more circumspectly but risk being beaten in detail. Playing the French with caution or the Prussians with elan can be punished.

Victory conditions are carefully worked out to reflect the undoubted power of the French and the weakness of its ancien regime opponents. For example the Prussians don’t have to hold a lot to win the 1806 campaign! You could win the game, even if to all intents and purposes you lost the campaign, as long as you don’t lose too badly. And making good use of the excellent Prussian cavalry could potentially save you – something the Prussians historically were unable to do.

The game system encourages the telling of the historic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

I think that the simple design captures the essence of the topic well. A more modern game might have added more chrome (or heaven forbid, a tactical sub-system), but this game demonstrates the relatively straightforward strategic choices available, and allows players to concentrate on the more complex planning and implementation. For example, depots produce a supply unit every turn, so you can arrange a string of such units to supply your armies in position or in response to a slow advance. Concentrated armies need more supplies, dispersed ones can live off the land to an extent (dice rolling for potential losses). However, a rapid or forced march will outstrip the movement of the supply units, so you have to make alternative arrangements, perhaps using up supplies to force march other supply units, altering supply routes, creating new depots (a slow process), or just fighting less powerfully with less supplies (a battle generally consumes a supply unit, or you fight with less strength). This simple mechanical sub-system covers:

  • Basic logistics of static armies
  • The problem of supplying rapidly moving forces
  • How to ensure that armies engaged in combat are supplied
  • The extra logistical problems of switching the direction of attack
  • Supply problems caused by divergent lines of attack
  • The importance of defending lines of supply and vulnerable depots

As I recall, the game is significantly weaker in terms of command control rules, but in general the mechanics are an excellent fit.

Appropriate level of challenge

As I’ve mentioned, the victory conditions are set so that the French don’t merely have to win, but have to win each campaign decisively to win the game. This gives the players an appropriate level of challenge. It means that if you win a decisive tactical victory, but in the wrong place or at the wrong time, then you could still lose the game – it is the strategic situation that determines the outcome. Experienced players would develop delaying tactics for the weaker Austrian and Prussian forces, limiting French forced marches through astute use of cavalry, and perhaps sending outlying forces on wide flanking manoeuvres to threaten supplies. Keeping large armies in fortresses might be an appropriate method (fortresses have their own supplies), but you also need to know the victory conditions – besieged fortresses are automatically taken at the end of the scenario, yielding only half the victory points for the city, so the Austrians or Prussians might be able to win by only losing to a siege, rather than battling in the open field.

Having played many games of La Grande Armee I would say that it provides a good level of challenge.

Next: some conclusions?,