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 (http://www.wargamedevelopments.org/) 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

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