A new problem and an old solution

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 1

The year was 2007, the place was Frome, Somerset, United Kingdom, the group: The Abbeywood Irregulars (AWI), and we had a problem. AWI was, and is, a very experienced bunch of wargamers – not yet oldies, but perhaps an emerging trend towards grey amongst some (myself included), and perhaps an air of tradition amongst others. We could, some of us, recount stories from the mists of time when Donald Featherstone was in his prime. In this blog series – a restrospective designer diary for Mission Command, Surprised Stare Games’ new World War Two miniatures rules – I will mostly avoid naming names (except for myself and Pete Connew, brother in arms), both to protect the innocent or guilty, and because I don’t have many authoritative notes, so I might blame or credit the wrong individual. I’ve also no idea how it’s going to pan out, so I ask your indulgence.

The problem was: we’d tried a fair few of the published WW2 miniatures rules and rejected all of them. None of them fitted the needs of our group of recalcitrant and fernickety players. We favoured gritty realism over slick presentation, and historical authenticity over ‘hollywood wargaming’. We weren’t afraid of weighty tomes (for Napoleonics, our favoured rules were General de Brigade), nor did we shy away from excessive versioning or as some might put it, correcting, of published rule sets (DBM with slips of amendments stuck in was favoured over the more professionally presented Field of Glory). What to do?

Consideration fell to myself and Pete Connew, being the two players primarily organising our WW2 games. The first idea was to return to an old favourite – Phil Barker’s 1973 Wargames Research Group “Armour and Infantry, 1925 – 1950”.

cover1

A paper copy (how quaint!) was dug out from the archives. Our intention was to uprate the rules in the light of our own researches and ideas, and to cover perceived weaknesses, bearing in mind the progress in wargames rules over the past 35 years or so. This short, snappy process would result in a set of rules that our group would be happy to play with. We hoped.

Looking back at the earliest version of our partially upgraded WGRG rules, we retained 99% of Phil’s original, and gave it an outing in April 2008. The scenario was called “Advance to Contact”, and it was a historical one from Operation Goodwood, so already Normandy was uppermost in our minds.

“It is the closing stages of Operation Goodwood. Guards Armoured Division having fought through and occupied Cagny has ordered 1st Coldstream Armoured Battalion and 1st Welsh Guards Infantry Battalion to advance through the village of Frenouville to their final objective the Bourguebus ridge. A Canadian Battalion (Lord Strathcona’s Horse) is in reserve. Unknown to the Guards and blocking their path was Kampfgruppe Waldmuller of the 12th SS Panzer Division. Historically, once engaged the fighting lasted well into the late summer evening. One point of interest was the arrival during the fight of a kette of Luftwaffe Me110s armed with bombs.”

This last provided Pete, if I recall correctly, with an opportunity to put some aircraft models on the table, even though the air rules amounted to less than 200 words.

A significant addition to the organisation of the game was our first use of what became the ‘command cards’ of Mission Command. I decided that it would be easier for players if they had the order of battle broken down with relevant movement and fire data immediately available on cards. Each player would have the cards for the troops under their command, and it might save them from looking everything up in the various tables in the rules. I was aware that this wasn’t a radical innovation, as the idea has been used elsewhere, but it may not have been used before with WGRG 1973 rules.

EarlyCommandCard

The main rule changes were to permit German units to ignore some reaction test triggers, thereby making them a bit less liable to fall apart. We also considered, but didn’t fully implement, an idea that all reaction tests would be taken at company level. Apart from that, our approach was highly comparable to WGRG: we kept the IGO/UGO sequence of play for the stated reason in the WGRG rules – to speed up play and ‘capture something of the flavour of a fast moving tank battle’ without imposing strict written orders and simultaneous movement, or a more complex turn sequence. IGO/UGO has the merit of simplicity, a major factor we wanted to retain. On the other hand, we wanted players to give their troops orders, so we also kept the WGRG notion that command elements should be ‘given realistic orders couched in fairly general terms’. We’ve retained this concept throughout, with the more explicit idea that the main purpose of orders is simply to enable your plan to be carried out, not to restrict what players themselves can do. More on that later, I mustn’t get ahead of myself!

We also kept the now archaic term ‘bound’ to mean a player or side’s turn, and the rough time (30 seconds per bound) and distance (1mm = 1 metre) scales. We were less convinced by the one-to-one figure scale, so instead used 1 figure = 3 to 5 real men or vehicles.

Our philosophical approach was:

  • Use WGRG 1973 as a starting point.
    We expected to simply modify the WGRG 1973 rules to our taste – this was to change!
  • Umpire moderated, not player argued!
    We weren’t that interested in the points values for troops, having no intention to run tournament games, though I notice that I suggested we might put points on the cards, so that players had an idea of the relative values of groups. We weren’t interested either in excessive arguments between players about what could and could not happen. We kept to the no points values approach, but stopping the arguments proved harder. Player enjoyment within a historically realistic game was our objective, and our advantage was that both Pete and I (with the addition of Stephen Welford later) were happy to umpire rather than to play.
  • Use historical data where we could get it, and best guesses where we couldn’t.
    We were placing this at the simulation end of the wargame spectrum, but short of ‘professional wargaming’, even though some of our players were military or ex-military.
  • Play test and refine till happy.
    We had no particular time scale in mind. AWI has monthly meets, and we were happy to commit 2 or 3 sessions per year to large WW2 games. Finishing wasn’t a particularly important objective at the start – in fact, we didn’t have an idea what ‘finished’ would look like.

The briefing for the players in “Advance to Contact” was very brief, and we relied on our very large table to show the terrain, rather than having anything like sketch maps. However, my order of battle notes show a reasonable sized British brigade group of the Coldstream Guards (Shermans), Welsh Guards (infantry), a reserve battalion of Shermans, with appropriate artillery and anti-tank supports, versus a Kampfgruppe of 2 fairly weak panzergrenadier battalions, with a couple of companies of Panzer IVs and a couple of Tigers due to show up later. Outnumbered Germans was to be a feature of most of our late war games, as we would expect with a historical or pseudo-historical approach.

I can’t remember much about what happened in Kampfgruppe Waldmüller versus the Guards, except that the Welsh Guards infantry learned the hard way that a cavalry charge in Bren carriers wasn’t a good idea. And the ever recurring lesson that you shouldn’t forget to use smoke screens.

Next: Let’s write our own rules!

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