Archive for August, 2016

Politics By Other Means – Variants

Continuing on from my previous two posts about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I omitted to put in a piccy of the Basic Game setup for the edification of potential readers, so here it is.
The Basic Game is abstract. It’s all about getting the drop on your opponent, so you can either take their Home Country or ensure you can get more than half the available VPs – although there is the philosophical side to the game too. Once you’ve played the Basic Game, the idea is that you experiment with variants, either by tweaking the rules yourself, or by cracking on with a pre-set variant, as follows.

18th Century so-called Limited War

Here we provide 2 neutral provinces with VPs varying between 1 and 3, representing possible targets for positional warfare. You can’t reduce your Home Country’s VPs dice to less than 2 (king’s tended not to want to devastate their own countries). You can’t score VPs for your home country, if you have no armies there when an enemy army is also there. The intention here is to force players to defend their core logistical area. As it’s limited war, the game ends when the first player reaches 13 points, compared with effectively 25 in the Basic Game. It’s possible in this variant to play a delaying and obstructing game, focusing on scoring points, rather than committing to battles.

Napoleonic Wars

Representing the French conscription and war footing, Blue starts with 2 armies in France, strength of 2 and home country of only 2, as it has already suffered from previous invasions. The Allies (Orange) don’t have their ATK+1 card, representing their lack of tactical flair, but can buy it for later with VPs. However, they have 2 armies in the neutral country, presumably Belgium and / or German states – but these are weaker than the French. Occupation of the capital ends the game, and the French have the early advantage, which may slip away.

World War 1 in the West

Getting to grips with trench warfare and potential stalemate is the objective here. In this variant, you can’t move past an enemy fortified army, so it’s possible to have a war of manoeuvre only until both realise the importance of fortification. The defender can discard a movement card to add 1 to their combat strength – representing reserves moving up to block threatened breakthroughs. In battle only one army is destroyed per engagement. While this looks like less casualties, in fact the dynamic means that armies have to be quickly re-cycled back into the meat grinder. If you score and pull your action cards back to hand without having attacked, you lose a VP – there’s an expectation on both sides that you have to attack the enemy to win. Finally there are game end conditions for a negotiated peace (by agreement), a peace as a result of revolutionary collapse (no VPs), and a peace from military defeat and exhaustion (all VPs claimed, most wins).

World War 2 in the West

This final variant for now hasn’t yet been played, and I’m not yet certain how many of the changes should be in it. Various changes reflect blitzkrieg, the forward defensive of the Allies into Belgium, German initiative, and the gradual increasing strength of the Allies. Using VPs as resources for increasing army strength represents industrial and manpower strength.

Conclusions so far

It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve learned that a surprising amount can be accomplished by very small tweaks. I think this shows the framework is robust (at least according to me, and play testing seems to bear it out). I’m hoping that this will be a fun game to play, as well as providing some insights for those that have a more academic perspective.


Mission Command: The Joy of Research

I’ve been reading shed-loads of books and articles about Normandy ’44 over the past few months, as I stumble forward (and occasionally back) with the design and development of Mission Command: Normandy beta version. Sometimes a little snippet of “new” information comes to light that seems to have been overlooked by many a professional historian (or, indeed, gamer). My latest read is Ben Kite’s 2014 book “Stout Hearts, The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944”, now available in weighty paperback from Helion & Co.

For best credibility of scenarios in historical games like Mission Command: Normandy, it’s important to do careful research, lest you get held to account by, shall we say, “gamers who have great attention to detail”. I’ve been researching and playing a set of scenario variants for the 6th Airborne Division’s actions north of Caen for some while. One thing that’s struck me is the amount of firepower available to our paras. Apart from the naval gunfire support from a cruiser and a destroyer for each parachute brigade, they had 9x 6 pounder and 2x 17 pounder AT guns.

It’s often assumed that the AT guns, particularly the 17 pounders carried by Hamilcar gliders, were not available when the main para drop arrived early in the morning, because the principal glider landing was famously at 21:00 in the evening of D-Day. Hence the particular danger of the potential counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division during D-Day.

Ben Kite mentions this in his book: “Sergeant ‘Jock’ Simpson was a second pilot on a Hamilcar which landed on Phase three [the 21:00 landing] of operation TONGA with a 17-pounder anti-tank gun..”. However, a reading of Ben Kite’s quote from Sergeant Simpson shows that he landed with the Phase one gliders in the early morning: “A short time after midnight we rolled down the runway and took off…”. As the crossing by towed glider was only a tad more than 2 hours, it’s clear that Sergeant Simpson was not going to land at 21:00, but round about 03:30.  Moreover, it’s recorded in 5 Para Brigade’s diary that 4 Airlanding AT battery, including attached 17 pounders, arrived safely (as ordered) about 03:30, confirming  its operational orders.  So, assuming it might take a couple of hours to deploy the guns, from around 05:30 in the morning of 6 June, 5 Para Brigade had 11 AT guns, including 17 pounders capable of dealing with Panthers and Tigers, more or less ready for action.  Our Mission Command scenario variants take this into account.

This information is nowadays happily available online, but this type of potential error does show the importance of double-checking the evidence.

Airfix Battles: A sneak peak at Operation Cobra

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, has now hit the shops.  If you’ve not yet seen it, have a look here:

The basic game has 10 scenarios, many of which are geared to teaching you how to play the game.  We thought it would be a great idea to present a whole campaign of scenarios to test out our more advanced players – enter Operation Cobra, the US offensive at the end of the Normandy Campaign that resulted in the (almost) encirclement of the German’s 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army.

The Operation Cobra Airfix Battles campaign is made up of 10 linked scenarios.  At the end of each scenario the winner earns Cobra Campaign Points (CCPs).  Most points wins at the end of the campaign.  However, you’re unlikely to play all 10 scenarios, because the outcome of a scenario presents some choices about which one to play next.  Some of the scenarios are not necessarily balanced, but rather they might favour one side or the other – or your style of play may suit you to one type of scenario, but not another.  So, if you think the next scenario is maybe a bit too demanding for your side, you may be able to opt to skip it, and move to a more palatable option.  In this way the path through the campaign can be different each time.

We’ve also introduced a few new bits and pieces for building your forces, setting up the scenarios and ending them.  Typically the Germans during Operation Cobra were scrabbling to keep up with the movement and materiel of the US advance.  To reflect the German losses, in most scenarios German squads will start with less than their full complement, but they’ll still cost the normal stars to buy.  Your Grenadiers may have only 7 or 8 men, instead of the normal 10.  Sometimes the German tanks are not fully repaired, so may have to start the game with 1 pip less on their Hit Dice, while at the end “The Last Throw of the Dice”, German tanks cost an extra star each to purchase.  In compensation, and because they’re on the defensive, the Germans frequently get to place terrain where they want it to be, so their relatively smaller force sometimes has the advantage of the ground.

As Operation Cobra was an offensive of rapid manoeuvre, both sides will face having to split their troops.  In Scenario 3, “Armoured Breakthrough”, the US side has a main and a flanking force and tries to take an on-road objective worth a large number of points.  In this scenario the Germans don’t have any tanks, so their problem is how to shift infantry around to block a flank attack, while also parrying a frontal force.  In Scenario 5, “Encircled!”, the Germans attempt to break out or rescue a trapped force by running the gauntlet of the attacking Americans.

We’ve included a lot of variation in the scenario designs.  The number of troops ranges from 10 Stars to 25, and many scenarios use both maps, so you’ll have a lot of ground to fight over.  We’ve also provided some very different end game and victory conditions.  For example, in Scenario 2, “Opening Attacks”, the Americans can choose to end the battle at the end of any round, thereby allowing them to limit their loss, take a quick victory, or go for broke by staying in the fight.  On the other hand, Scenario 4, “Panzer Counter-attack” is a do or die that only ends when one side has been destroyed, routed or withdrawn.

Scenario 10: Allied Briefing – “That’s it, boys, the Krauts are beaten. I doubt they have a single tank left in the whole of France! It should all be plain sailing from here on.”  Or the Axis Briefing – “General, you may demand all you want, but I cannot make tanks appear out of thin air! The whole division is destroyed! What’s that? An order from Berlin? Then I suppose we have no choice…”  Your chance to fight the enemy in Operation Cobra!

Politics By Other Means – having a CoW

Continuing on from my previous post about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I’m now into the play testing phase of the game. I’ve probably played it between 20 and 30 times with opponents varying from highly experienced professional wargamers at the Conference of Wargamers to novice gamers at Heffers’ game evenings in Cambridge. As far as I can tell (and sometimes less experienced play testers are not necessarily frank!), everyone who’s played it has enjoyed it. The thinky players have thought hard, and the romantically brash ones have dived in where angels fear to tread. I’ve also received a fabulous number of suggestions for refinement, additions, improvements and, occasionally, re-design. This is usually the case with game designing, until the very end stage, when I hope it’s ‘pretty perfect’. I’m trying to resist the siren calls of extra action cards, more countries, and more complexity.

I’ve not yet blind tested it, nor have I done much simple watching of others playing it. I’ve been concerned to get a firm foundation before launching it free of my own intervention. That’s the next step.

The current version of the game has a Basic Game with 4 additional scenarios: 18th century limited war, Napoleonic Wars, WW1 in the West and WW2 in the West, but more of that later. The Basic Game has solidified around 8 Action cards: Move 1 army, Move 2 armies, Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1 (with discard), (increase) Army Strength, Score+Retrieve action cards. There’s a Home Country card for each (Orange and Blue) player and a Neutral country card. 2 other cards are quite important – a Play Aid that shows the order of the actions, and an Initiative card (orange one side, blue the other).

The order of the actions is vital, and it’s common for new players to need to learn by experience, rather than to just read it. The order is: Move, Build, Attack, (increase) Strength, Score/Retrieve. There are a few important implications here. Attack comes after Move, so your opponent might move away before your attack, and, because armies don’t block, enemies *could* move away from your own armies in the Neutral Country straight into your Home Country. Build is before Attack, so a defending army can dig in and gain +1 just before you attack. However, increasing Army Strength – you reduce by 1 the VPs of a country card you control, in order to increase the strength of all your armies by 1 permanently – comes *after* Attack. This represents the idea that it requires significant sacrifice to ‘level up’ your armies with better equipment, training, etc. So using that card won’t help you this turn. One advantage both players have is that discards are all open – I didn’t want this to be a memory game. Even though there are only 8 action cards each, I figured it’s no hardship to just leave them all open, so both players will know what their opponent can potentially do each turn.

Initiative turns out to be pretty important too. The basic rule is: if both players Move, or both players Attack, then the player with the Initiative does it first, and the initiative then switches to the other player. So, if we both attack and only have one country card occupied by opposing armies, then only one attack will actually happen, and the other will fizzle. If I have the initiative, then I might be able to guarantee to win an offensive battle, but I must still get the timing right (tactics) using Move and Attack actions.

I played about half-a-dozen games at the Conference of Wargamers ( early in July 2016. I hadn’t advertised it as a session before the conference, because PBOM is a shortish game and didn’t seem to warrant a whole session. Besides, I was doing two others (Mission Command and Airfix Battles, since you ask). Arriving Friday eve, I stuck a sign-up sheet up on the notice board for later in the evening, after our usual ‘warm-up’ plenary game. What I *should* have done was just plonked myself at a table in the main entrance area, but what I *did* do was to pick an empty room and add that venue to the sheet. I was then obliged to play in The Board Room – not, as you might expect, a central location, but a heavily concealed one, only entered through another room and via a narrow ill-lit staircase cunningly marked “No Entry”. I made the very last bit up. Not unsurpringly, only Nick and I made it, although I had, I think, 4 sign-ups. I played a few more games later in the conference using the less organised method.

So with just the select 2 of us, Nick and I played the Basic Game. The initial explanation only takes a few minutes, then you’re in the action. I’ve found that there are different styles that new players have. Nick proved to be “moderately cautious”. His opening gambit was to fortify his starting army, build another and only then advance into the Neutral Country, while I scored some VPs. Having a mind on defence is, I would think, a sensible approach. It did mean I was able to nip into the Neutral Country before he could capitalise on it, and increase my army strength using the Neutral VPs. We had a good, lengthy and thinky session. Owing to relative inexperience, Nick made a couple of small errors that allowed me to capitalise on Army Strength for an eventual win by virtue of gaining more than 50% of the available VPs. However, it was a fine tussle, and I think we illustrated the tensions inherent in the design – you need to keep a watch on the relative strengths of both sides in the field, while plotting how to maximise your future potential strength, while also ensuring that you don’t concede too much of the VP pool, while also looking at what actions you and your opponent can do each turn.

The game can be varied by very small rule changes. The original form had unlimited VPs, an end game “whenever both players agree to finish” and victory to the player with most VPs at that point. The purpose of this was to show the Clausewitzian tendency of war to go to extremes. Generally what happens is that countries are devastated in order to maximise army strengths, and it’s rare to end the game with more than 1 VP potential remaining. With no limit to VPs, the accumulation of VPs during the main part of the game becomes irrelevant – as long as I can generate some VPs at the end and my opponent can’t, then I win. So the focus here is simply on getting the drop on your opponent by devastating as much of the country cards as possible, to increase your Army Strength more than your opponent can. This can get quite philosophical. One player might propose to stop (presumably when they’re ahead in VPs), when it looks likely that the opponent is on the ropes. This might result in a perception of a ‘marginal’ victory, though the game doesn’t recognise such a result. On the other hand, one player might just refuse to give up, even when the situation looks completely hopeless – I view this as a bit like the Paris Commune period of the Franco-Prussian War, or perhaps a never-say-die guerrilla struggle. This approach lends itself to the use of the game as a teaching tool perhaps, and I suspect I’ll include it somehow. However, the Basic Game is more accessible with a fixed number of VPs, which introduces the extra concern of watching the VP pool.

Next post on this: variants