Let’s write our own rules!

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 2

Our experience of replaying WGRG 1973 in 2008 and ’09 was only moderately positive. Not because we didn’t respect the rules, but because we became convinced that the scales were wrong for our purposes. We were more interested in tactical / operational play over a larger combat area with game time of up to a day, rather than 30 second turns with a whole game running for 15 to 20 turns. The time scale, ground scale and figure scale meant that the rules were designed for skirmishes, rather than for full scale battles. We were feeling a bit cramped.

Scales

As an experiment, we decided to address the scale issues. We replaced 1 millimetre = 1 metre with 1 millimetre = 2 metres and radically reconsidered the length of a bound. I was already conscious that in many traditional wargames, troops ‘do stuff’ all the time, whereas actual combat tends to consist of “long periods of boredom where not much happens except fire from known positions at known positions, interspersed with intense, brief activity during which a great deal happens” (quoting from our 2009 draft rules). Movement rates in many games are determined by theoretical maximums or theoretical averages, or even rely on an element of randomisation through various dice rolls dependent on troop type. However, it struck me that movement rates and other activities that expose men to fire are often a function of how close the men are to the enemy. Up close and personal to enemies with small arms was bad news and tended to enforce restrictions on movement (‘keeping your head down’ was a good idea), and even at slightly longer ranges, say within range of direct fire from MGs or other support weapons, activities might be more circumspect than when the enemy was a long way off or using area fire, particularly indirect area fire. We introduced the idea of a variable length bound: 5 minutes for a ‘hot’ bound within 500m of known enemies, during which movement was at ‘normal’ rates; 15 minutes for a ‘warm’ bound, outside 500m range (potentially off-table), and no new direct fire within 500m, during which movement could be 5 times the normal rates; and 30 minutes for a ‘cold’ bound outside 1000m of known enemies, during which movement could be 10 times normal rates. Cold or warm bounds could suddenly become hot if the enemy used close up fire revealing themselves within 500m. We had the advantage that the umpires could keep track of the passage of time and control the type of bound in operation. At this stage we didn’t use the concept of opportunity fire in an opponent’s bound, but more simply would end the bound and start a new one if new short range fire changed the circumstances.

Bounds

There were many advantages to the new types of bound. Warm and cold bounds enabled very quick (in real time) sorting out of orders, requests and reports, whereas previously we’d been tied to very short turns, which bogged players down in detail even when the enemy was a long way off. This way, the attacking side could ‘go cold’ and carry out a lot of activity at the start of the game, until the enemy was encountered within 500m. This could even mean vehicles travelling several kilometres, or carrying out reconnaissance over large areas very quickly without players becoming bored. It also meant we avoided a problem in earlier games whereby infantry were only allowed to move 100m per turn, so could take an age to cover basically uncontested terrain (or even terrain behind their own lines). If the bound was cold, the foot-sloggers could slog along at 1km per bound; though of course they’d be vulnerable to ambush if they did that in areas that hadn’t been cleared of enemy. Here we had some naturally emerging friction. A player might want to move his troops fast, but if he did, there was a significantly increased risk of losses, so players would be very reluctant to do it, unless convinced there was no enemy around.

We also changed the number of men and vehicles represented by a single figure or model, settling on a ratio of 10 to 1 for most infantry, and between 3 and 5 to 1 for vehicles and heavy weapons. These ratios were by no means strict, so we didn’t envisage people counting up the figures and multiplying by 10. Infantry stands were approximately 6 figures, but could readily have just 4, with support weapons such as MGs or mortars separately depicted on smaller bases. Our elements used pretty much the same frontages as Flames of War, as these base types were readily available, with the main infantry base having a 50mm frontage – representing 100 metres.

Our next couple of play test games were very different. For June 2009 we decided that a D-Day game would be appropriate, while for October we scheduled a Western Desert game.

“Hold until relieved!”

I blithely asked Pete if he could supply any British paratroopers for D-Day – only 1 division was the answer! So we had almost the entire 6th Airborne Division available, complete with Tetrarch light tanks, 75mm pack howitzers and little red berets. And the piece de resistance: Horsa gliders. We decided that the whole division might make rather too big a game for a play test, so we opted for 5 Parachute Brigade and the area around the Orne bridges. Opposition was primarily elements of 21 Panzer division with minor supports from 716 Infantry Division. Unbeknown to the British, this was not to be a true-to-history scenario, but rather, a what if 21 Panzer Division had been committed earlier, as a whole division? The scenario focused on the eastern supporting German forces, while the main Divisional attack went in off-map to the west, which was perhaps a bit of a cop-out, but had the merit of a smaller area of operations.

Period maps are pretty easy to come by, so for added realism and immersion, we used the historical recce maps and a large aerial recce photo. In addition the British briefings for the “Hold until relieved” scenario were based on the historical briefing for the Brigade. The German briefing had the merit of simplicity, in that their objective was to take the Orne bridges in support of the main attack, and to secure the eastern flank of the division.

A further innovation was our introduction of Event Cards as a method of injecting semi-random happenings to enrich the scenario. These helped to cover things difficult to model through conventional mechanics, such as snipers, cut off sections of 716 Division, arrival of lost paras, and air support. There was even a German gunboat on the Caen Canal to contend with. I created a small pack of 13 event cards, and we drew about 1 per hour, so using perhaps half of them during the game. An advantage of this idea is that players can take actions that might mitigate against adverse events, for example, it’s worthwhile sweeping an area in detail, as you’ll likely prevent snipers or infiltrators from umpire-controlled event cards. This mechanism worked very well, and we’ve used it many times since.

EventCard

 

Event card example

As I recall, the Germans eventually overcame the stubborn paras after a tough fight. More importantly, the rules had worked, if a bit clunkily. I recall that the hot/warm/cold idea worked reasonably well, though it was a little complex to implement, because we hadn’t nailed down precisely enough all the conditions and implications of changing the type of bound. We put this down to unfamiliarity at the time, and the umpires smoothed out some of the rough edges. The infantry movement issue was partially resolved, particularly in the ‘move to contact’ part of the game, but bogging down and lack of sufficient player decisions cropped up when things got close up. Communications in relation to artillery strikes worked well, though new players didn’t quite understand the time lags imposed. We felt that even though the game was supposed to be umpired, the pressure on the umpires to move the game along was more than expected, and players tended to wait instead of helping the game to progress.

Sidi Rezegh

I felt that “Hold until relieved” had been inconclusive, and we needed a different test to prove the rules or to stimulate more development. Our next major game, based on part of Operation Crusader in November 1941 around Sidi Rezegh, was indeed a different test. We had to have more space for a desert game, we had less cover, more tanks and far more manouevre.

I was against the idea of PIP dice or other artificial fog of war mechanisms that tried to restrict the numbers of troops that could act in a given turn. These, in my opinion, seemed to rely on dice rolls as a proxy for friction, whereas I felt that friction should be built into the game system, or more properly should be an emergent property of it. Therefore, as I’ve noted earlier, we kept the idea that troops should be given orders and report what happens. I see that we’d implemented this to an extent via this briefing to the German commander in the desert:

“You have all your regimental/battalion commanders with you and therefore should brief them accordingly on their tasks etc (including order of march/attack, objectives etc).
How you go about your task is your decision…at this point you can talk directly to your commanders; once they return to their units then all messages will be by radio communications.
As CinC you have the option of operating independently or attaching yourself to a unit (this should be clearly stated /identified) at will.”

SidiRezegh

Sidi Rezegh umpires map

Our Sidi Rezegh game was especially interesting for me. The game was organised by Stephen Welford, who masterminded all our North African theatre games, so my original role was to help with umpiring. Best laid plans failed however, and our German commander couldn’t make it, so I took over the German C-in-C role a few days before the engagement.

Fortunately this isn’t a session report blog, because I can remember little about this game other than the design decisions that sprang from it. Both sides learned about the power of artillery, particularly as the main British assembly area came under massive indirect fire controlled by a well-concealed German Forward Observation Officer whom they never tracked down. We also learned how difficult it was to mount an infantry attack on a prepared position, as an attacking German regiment suffered heavy casualties due to the lifting of a smoke barrage too early. We also had a couple of swirling tank melees that gave the right feel of the desert fighting. And we capped it with a more or less historically accurate outcome: indecisive at the end of day 1!

A key design and organisation feature was how to handle ranges for spotting and firing. In the desert, you could have visibility over several kilometres, and effective direct fire range in the open could be over 2 kilometres, for example with a battery of 8.8 cm guns. As we have the advantage of a large church hall, we’re able to have a very extensive play area, and we decided that we could simply put out more tables if the fighting spread. For the 8.8 cm battery initial position far to the south, we used a separate card table, which we could move in towards the main playing area as it re-deployed. Direct fire at more than 3 kilometres was quite practical.

To help players with the game flow, we put the sequence of play on a poster on the wall, and we used a flipchart with numbered squares to act as a turn counter. This very much helped to give the players a good impression of the passage of time.

These two play tests convinced us of two things. First we definitely wanted to continue with this development, and second we were writing big chunks of changes to WGRG 1973. Sooner or later, we thought, we’d be writing our own rules.

Next: PBI re-write

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