Archive for the 'Game playing' Category

Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.


American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.


Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.


Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.


Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.


Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).


The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).


Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.


Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.


It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Uncombined arms

Dateline: 1 Feb 2018. A Mission Command scenario to test a strong infantry attack against a (weak?) combined defence.

The scene was an area 75cm x 100cm, so quite small, merely 1.5km x 2km. The scenario was designed to take 2 – 3 hours with 1-2 German players versus 1-2 British players. In this game Pete was Brits, I was Germans.


British attacking from the north (bottom of pic). Mission: push in the German outpost in and around the village, so that the area can be used to assemble troops for a major attack on the main German position to the SW – the large slope in the top right leads to the main German position. The stream is fordable along its entire length, the orange patch is a small hill, and the woods are open to the south, but dense on a rocky outcropping to the north. There’s a sizeable patch of bocage before we reach the village.

It’s a couple of hours before dusk, and the Divisional commander wants this outpost cleared before nightfall. The Brits have an infantry battalion and (off-table) a couple of batteries of 25 pounders. British recce suggests the Germans have only a company, but probably with some limited supports, possibly including AFVs.

fire in the bocage.JPG

Fire in the bocage!

Rather inaccurate British artillery opened the engagement to cover the advance of the troops. It was quickly corrected by Forward Observation Officers and was moved forward to the crest over a couple of turns.


B Company advanced – rightmost 7 elements, with C Company to the left. Each of the 4 companies had 2x integrated (rifle+LMG) elements, a command element with jeep, plus light supports of PIAT, LMG and 2″ mortar. 2 companies have an additional PIAT element attached from Support Company. 3″ mortars are giving support with the artillery from off-map. 2″ mortars of each company are dishing out limited smoke.


D Company advanced on the other side of the stream. Half out of shot is a Sherman with the FOO for the off-map battery of Sextons.


The full battalion en avant! Note the 6 pounders from Support Company deployed in the centre.


On turn 3 German artillery picked on the 6 pounder position, having been easily spotted by Germans on the crest of the bocage ridge before the smoke and barrage intervened. It took a while for the transmission of orders to the battery of Wespes off table, and it was to an extent a lucky shot (1/3 chance of being on target using predicted fire). 1 6 pounder model destroyed, the other moved away.


B Company (nearest) continued its advance protecting the left flank of C Company attacking directly into the bocage, C level with A Company on the right. Things were very murky in the bocage at this point, because the barrage reduced visibility by one state – partially obscuring terrain becomes obscuring, so it was very hard for the attackers to see what was in front.

However, the 3″ mortar fire in front of B Company wasn’t enough to prevent Germans not in the bocage from seeing them coming.


A dug in StuG Zug used opportunity fire on the lead element of B Company, then overran it. Surprised, having taken a few casualties and with only relatively distant PIATs immediately available to deal with the assault guns, B Company reeled back, many of their riflemen being captured.

You can also see at the top of the picture that C Company were taking fire from panzergrenadiers around the ridge line in the bocage. The Germans were suffering greatly from the artillery, so the effect of their fire was keeping British heads down rather than causing casualties.


The aftermath of the overrun was that the British left wing had gone. The remaining 6 pounders – still limbered up from the earlier move away from the Wespe fire – was hastily unlimbered, but (shoot then move!) the StuGs had the initiative and quickly shot them up. The StuG’s orders did not include a lone Zug attacking a battalion, so they disappeared back to their secondary position out of sight.bocage_cleared.JPG

Meanwhile A and C Companies’ fire and the supporting indirect fire had driven the German defenders out of the bocage with considerable losses. D Company were established on the undefended ridge on the far side of the stream, ready to push on towards the village from the north west.

This was the situation after 90 minutes of play and game time (the objective for Mission Command is that real time and game time should be about the same). With the StuGs somewhere around the ridges at the bottom of this picture, further Germans undoubtedly not yet discovered directly defending the village, and only 30 minutes of daylight left, it would be a tall order for the British to clear the village before nightfall. Unfortunately we had run out of time – our Thursday sessions are only 2 hours at the moment. I would have liked to have run the remaining bits, but real life can get in the way!

The purpose of this brief scenario was to investigate the difficulty of attacking a combined arms force without armoured support in the late war period. Although this was not a scientific approach and was only one game, I think it is an example of how a few AFVs in a defensive position can strengthen a numerically weakly held position, if the attackers have no armoured support themselves.

With only towed AT guns, rather than armoured tank destroyers or tanks, it’s difficult to co-ordinate against a potential limited counter-attack, while maintaining a decent pace to the attack. With 20-20 hindsight it might have been better for the British to deploy as follows:

  1. Set up the 6 pounders as 2 batteries, 1 on each flank, in overwatch, so they could deal with any armoured forays from the village, from either ridge or the bocage, then move them up to the slopes on each side when captured.
  2. Put PIATs and LMGs on overwatch during the advance, moving forward by bounds, rather than continuously. Then, if there’s a counter-attack or indeed German op fire, the British have an immediate response.

Having said that, it’s still difficult to co-ordinate, because the movement forward of the AT guns will require time, and that’s very limited in this scenario. The British have enough artillery and mortars to suppress the German infantry and thereby support their own infantry onto the position and through to the village. But the German armour changes the nature of the engagement completely. It’s no longer a classic fire and movement situation, but contains a more complex set of problems coordinating anti-tank weapons against armour as well.

Many thanks to Pete P for accepting the short straw of being the attacker!


Conference of Wargamers 2013: MySummary

The Conference of Wargamers is a group of about 100 wargamers of long standing (for which read ‘oldies’) that get together at Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire for a long weekend every year to play experimental, innovative and above all enjoyable wargames developed by the participants. For how it all started in the mists of time, see the Wargame Developments website, or alternatively just buy John Curry a drink.

This year’s gathering (5 to 7 July 2013) started with a plenary ice-breaker session run by Mike Young about the oldest war: Homo Sapiens vs Neanderthals. This involved much running around and ‘ughing’; there were two mechanics: the lower browed brethren were permitted to communicate only via grunts, whereas the intellectual side had full language. Combat did not involve clubbing each other to death – though optional inflatable clubs were carried by some. Simple numerical comparison at the point of combat drives back the inferior side. The Homo Sapiens had to kill off the Neanderthal babies by crossing off a space on plastic sheets placed around the site, while the grunters had to use their superior numbers to beat off the sapient raiders. So a simple genocide game really. Good fun on a warm (!) July eve, followed by beer and chewing the cud with folks I’d not met since my last attendance here in 2010.

I managed to sneak into Graham Evans’ talk on the Xian Terracotta Warriors. He gave a very informative and fun presentation on his recent trip to China, focusing on an in-depth review of his visit to the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Some very good photos brought the thing to life (as it were).

Saturday also dawned fine and began with the excellent Knuston Hall breakfast – good enough to last beyond lunch, except that in their fine tradition our hosts also provided mid-morning coffee and biscuits and a hearty lunch too. Good food and plenty of it is part of the CoW experience.

My first session was with Graham Evans again – and once again in China, but now at the time of the Taiping Rebellion. We fought a Brits v Chinese battle of 1860, using his EDNA (Ever Decreasing Numerical Allowance) based rules. They fitted the period very well, despite the contrasting fortunes of myself and Mike – in a game with dice, such vagaries are bound to happen. Though the Brits duly won the battle (EDNA d12s for true Brits, d10s for Indians, versus the Chinese d6s and Manchus d8s), there were parliamentary questions about the losses. The movement system was based on squared off terrain, which caused the odd difficulty with diagonals, resolved easily with goodwill on all sides, but I suspect might cause rather more difficult with pernickety rules lawyer types.

After lunch I played Sue Laflin-Barker’s Gentlemen Go By game, largely because it seemed rather too hot to play the War of Freedonian Succession outside, and there seemed an imbalance of players. As it happened, we managed 4 smugglers and 2 Revenue players. As a player of many Eurogame board games, this had a definite Eurogame collect-and-deliver feel, though played with minis. It worked OK, but I suspect more development and balancing is required. This type of game is a tough call.

In the evening was the first of my own two offerings: Carrier Strike! I’d run an earlier version at CoW 2010, which, though rather hand-to-mouth, had gone down quite well (thank you particularly to John Salt and Alex Kleanthous for comments back then). This new version was more fully developed with actual written down rules and even some 1/3000 scale figures. Many thanks to Chris Ager, John Armatys and Bob Plumb for being willing victims. After an explanation somewhat coloured by [state=after-dinner] the players got stuck into combat. The intro scenario is effectively ‘first blood’ on the enemy carrier. Chris and John as Blue managed to sneak a recce patrol through the inexperienced Japanese (sorry, Red) fighter screen, to spot the location of the enemy CV group. They launched a full-scale attack with 2x strike and 1x escort squadrons, which forced a hurried re-arming from Bob. He was in time to intercept with 3 CAP squadrons, which forced the escorts and one strike squadron to break off. The final strike aircraft pushed on regardless, braving heavy flak as well as CAP – 3 aircraft made it through and in a careless disregard of death smacked a bomb on one of the carriers. Although the yanks lost a few more aircraft than the japs, they’d managed to snatch a minor victory by damaging the enemy carriers while maintaining their own intact. More importantly, feedback on the current design was very positive – I look forward to measured critique in the Nugget!

Sunday morning I ran Mission Command, requiring a double-slot. Those brave enough for a complicated WW2 game early on the final day were John Salt and Rob Doel, and thanks too to Phil Barker for stalwart ‘observer status’ in the first half. It was a lively session with many a divergent conversation into the art of code names, artillery doctrine, and even French philosophy (particular thanks to John!); I learned much in many unexpected (and some expected) directions. From my point of view at least, the game worked, which was a relief, as I’m always afraid of a bomb in such august (or at least July) company. John has even volunteered to supply more info and sources on national artillery doctrines, which should be very helpful. I’ll be writing up a description of the game itself later on. Suffice it to say that the players’ party (British paras) dealt with the Hun pretty well, even though one company got caught in a kill zone.

The final session was John Curry’s entertaining Random Tales from the History of Wargaming Project, always fun with some of the ‘historical’ characters in the room!

Thanks also to all those who purchased the bring-and-buy material I brought along. I went away with nothing left.

Systems Thinking Through Playing Strategy Games

The title of this blog post is also the title of a two-day workshop at the School of Transformative Leadership, the Palacky University, Olomouc, that I delivered recently, ably aided and abetted by Gary Hampson and Charlie Paull. A major reason for doing this workshop was that Charlie and I could continue on from the Essen games fair to Olomouc in the Czech Republic. ‘Essen’ (as it is known to the gaming cognoscenti) is the largest game playing and selling festival in the world – the ‘Spiel’ (Internationale Spieltage) is an annual 4-day gamefest involving around 150,000 people, and Charlie and I trek out there every year under our Surprised Stare Games hats. This year, Spiel ’12, was a great show for us, as we sold out of our new board game Snowdonia.

A second major reason was that it combined two great interests of mine – systems thinking and playing games. The systems thinking derives from a healthy dose of Open University courses that Charlie and I pursued over 20 years ago. We’ve been using these techniques in our working lives since then, and they’ve strongly influenced my game design habits too.

And a third major reason was that I was invited to do it by Gary, a gaming friend who had fairly recently obtained a research post at the University in Olomouc, so it was an opportunity to catch up. Coincidentally we were also able to celebrate Gary’s birthday the day after the workshop before we had to endure the 1,000 mile drive back to the motherland.

Fortunately it was OK to deliver the workshop in English, as I know no Czech. We had 23 participants from a wide variety of courses, ranging from Philosophy, Education and Film to Chemistry. The workshop was an ‘elective’ one, so to a great extent the students attended by choice, having a number of such ‘extra curricula’ workshops to select from. The workshop was run under the auspices of the School of Transformative Leadership is part of an EU funded project, the University 4 The Future, an innovative new model of how to set up and run a university.

Setting up

Our focus for the workshop was on the learners learning about systems thinking. We intended to introduce how to play and think about the games through systems thinking techniques and vice versa

We alternated between playing the games and covering the theory illustrated by the games. We started by having plenary sessions for the theory, but found that getting responses from the whole group was difficult, as individuals were reluctant to speak. Therefore we switched to individual and group tasks, followed by discussions in which we could ask individuals to respond for the group. This worked very well.

Essential systems thinking concepts that we covered were:

  • Holism
  • Interconnectedness and relationships
  • Perspective
  • Purpose
  • Boundary
  • Emergent properties
  • Closed mechanical systems vs open living systems

And we introduced the following techniques:

  • Systems maps
  • Sign-graph diagrams
  • Control model diagrams
  • Very basic process model diagram
  • Systems model diagrams
  • Rich pictures

Game components

Characteristics of illustrative games in this workshop we wanted were:

  • To include strategic elements – preferably with easily discernible different strategies
  • Accessible (easy to teach and to learn)
  • Attractive
  • Easily identifiable systems and sub-systems
  • Available
  • Manageable or predictable length of play
  • Specific illustrative characteristics relevant to systems thinking

We decided on using the following games:

Kingdom Builder – this is very easy to teach in large groups, has got predictable play length if you pick the cards and boards, and it’s readily available. It has easily discernible sub-systems and elements of both strategic and tactical play. Additionally I was able to get 6 copies from Queen Games at Essen Spiel ’12 for a small discount, owing to our educational use (thanks to Queen Games for that).

Fzzzt! – also quite easy to teach and predictable play length with strategic and tactical play. We were able to use SSG copies for this, brought over as surplus from Essen.

Seven Wonders – more difficult to teach, as it has a significant learning curve for non-gamers, and requires single game teaching really. However, it can take up to 7 players and is highly engaging with strategic and tactical features; it’s not too difficult to play once you’ve grasped the basics. It looks very complex, though this can be deceptive, so good for teaching ideas of complexity without being too daunting.

Ticket To Ride: We had thought that Ticket To Ride would be another candidate, but in the end we were less confident of the play length, particularly as we had numerous expansions, rather than base copies, which meant that teaching across groups would have been more difficult. In the end we used it as a ‘final play’ game, rather than a particular teaching aid.

Snowdonia – used as one of our complex games, primarily because we’d been teaching it a lot at Essen, as it was our 2012 SSG release.

Hamburgum – the other complex game, a favourite of Gary’s, this one went down very well.

Sequence of Play

The structure of each day was 4 sessions: 09:00 start, break at around 11:00, 11:20 to 12:30/13:00; then lunch, then two afternoon sessions with a break at around 15:00. We were flexible about timing of breaks, so that we could get to coherent start and end points. This was really helped by having in-room refreshments – coffee, tea, juice, biscuits – and excellent support from the venue; we were in the Ibis Olomouc.

Day one

At the start of day one, we introduced ourselves, the concept of a strategy game, and what we meant by systems thinking. Then we went straight into Kingdom Builder.

Playing the game: Kingdom Builder

Our teaching method for the games was for me to address the whole class, with Gary and Charlie answering questions, checking groups and firefighting. The exposition had to be very slow and careful to ensure each group was up to speed at each stage of the explanation. As English was their second (and in one case third!) language, for both game concepts and systems concepts, we had to keep the terminology simple, and also repeat concepts with different words, and get some response from our audience to know we were succeeding. This was difficult in the first morning until we got used to it. We needed to sound them out and work out what level of language complexity was possible.

Playing Kingdom Builder

After playing Kingdom Builder we launched into some basic systems concepts: systems components (systems maps); boundaries; holism; relationships; emergent properties; closed mechanical systems versus open living systems; the games as a sub-system and containing sub-systems. We drew up a collective systems map of playing Kingdom Builder as an illustration of all the concepts. Trying to get them to think outside the game box (to think of systems outside the game) was difficult, until Charlie prompted with some examples. We covered a lot of ground, including an extensive explanation of emergent properties, including examples with regards strategies as emergent properties of games. We were then able to build on this idea; to develop or change strategies during game play, is an example of both game playing and wider application. We also started on control models, in particular the feedback control model.

Playing the game: Fzzzt!

Our afternoon session was Fzzzt!, a very successful card game that we had published three years before. Using this as an example, we were able to illustrate the ‘rich get richer’ phenomenon (positive feedback loops) and contrast with negative feedback loops. We decided it was easier to engage them with individual A4 systems maps of the Fzzzt! session, than to have a plenary discussion. This was a good ‘hands on’ starter.

One of our main techniques, and it worked very well, was to draw up diagrams using the games as examples, and post these around the room. By the end of the workshop most of the available wall space was papered with diagrams, about half of them produced by the students.

Day two

For day 2 we revised our plan taking into account our day 1 experiences. First we littered the walls with all our diagrams from day 1, including the systems map for Kingdom Builder, a generic systems map, systems definition, control models, communications model, emergent properties, positive feedback and Story So Far. Our intention for day 2 was to focus on activities to engage them, followed by discussion and feedback, as a handle for the explanation of the points we wanted them to grasp. The central things we wanted to cover in day 2 were: complexity (difficult versus messy problems) and how to use systems thinking to address it. Techniques: rich pictures, generic systems model mapping, plus the basics of soft systems methodology to pull it all together. Finally we would get them to play their choice of game at the end.

We could have translated this as: “we’re going to throw you in at the deep end, and then give you some techniques to cope with this”!

Playing the game: Complex games

After a recap of what we’d completed on day 1, we asked our students to form a line by their perceived level of confidence in playing the games. This took only a few minutes, and it worked very well – it had a major positive impact on the rest of the day. We were then able to pick off the most confident 5 students to be taught to play Hamburgum (the most demanding game) with Gary, the least confident 7 to be taught Seven Wonders (the easiest game) by Alan, and the remainder to be taught Snowdonia by Charlie. This session was interesting, because we had variable abilities and variable game lengths. Hamburgum looked to be the longest game, but we found that it was within 10 to 15 minutes of Snowdonia length. We fitted two Seven Wonders games into the slot.

Playing Hamburgum

The purpose of this session was to introduce more complex and challenging games. Quite properly some players found this difficult, which is the experience we were looking for. More confident players helped them through, and this enabled more group bonding, which was good for the next session.

We now introduced ‘messy’ problems and contrasted them with ‘difficulties’, using game examples and those from real life, including environmental and wider planning problems, and personal situations regarding further study and employment. This was important, because we wanted to relate the systems thinking increasingly to their own circumstances.

We retained them in their gaming groups (combining the Snowdonia players into one group) and set them the task of drawing a rich picture of their experiences in the previous session and the wider workshop. Charlie had drawn up an example of a rich picture the previous evening, so we were able to demonstrate the technique to an extent. The example was of day one and stressing the non-material elements.

This part of the day needed a lot of individual hand-holding, prompting and thinking time. It proved to be very important to give each group the space and time to get to grips with the task. We covered the games tables with 4 or 6 large Post-It flip chart pages and gave them coloured markers and pens to use. We gave them about 40 minutes to do this exercise – and there was much scratching of heads. With individual guidance we triggered the initial ‘marks on the paper’, and by the last 15 minutes almost all were actively participating and some very creative and insightful pieces of work were added.

Ideally, we would have had more coloured pencils or even crayons for this. Never give them yellow felt-tips – the marks don’t show up!

Once we felt they had achieved enough, we rotated the groups and asked them to review each others rich pictures for 5 minutes (done twice, so each group looked at all of them). Then we called for questions and some discussion ensued. The best method we found for stimulating discussion was to ask for an individual representing a group to explain how the rich picture emerged – individuals were less inhibited in responding when talking on behalf of their group, rather than for themselves.

Rich Picture

We rounded off the session by explaining how to draw out themes from the rich pictures that would help to address problem areas systemically.

We put all the rich pictures on the wall. On each one there were elements representing initial confusion followed by (eventual) ‘happy faces’ and understanding. This was very significant illustration of their journey (shown on the Snowdonia one as a train journey).

A generic systems model

In this session I explained the generic systems model and how to map other proto-systems to it. The explanation was taken slowly stage by stage, with reference to real world and game system examples at each stage.

The final exercise was for each individual to do an A4 sized map of the system “A system for understanding systems thinking through playing and discussing strategy games” using the generic systems model as a template. We nursed some of them through this, while others found it plain sailing. This exercise needed more careful explanation as some students did not understand that they were to use the generic model and started their own fresh diagram or used a different system more directly to do with the game. However, the central purpose was to get them to think systemically, which was achieved.

Victory conditions

In the final session we gave a brief overview of the soft systems methodology (a lot of which they had now been through), using a hand-drawn diagram on an overhead. A number of the students found this very useful, as it gave a real world way of using systems thinking for specific purposes.

Reflecting on this, it might have been better to present this overview earlier, because we do want to show the efficacy, purpose or point of the approach earlier in the day.

Soft Systems Methodology

We finished off the day with playing their choice of games from those already played, or learning Ticket To Ride as an alternative. We had very good feedback from students, an example being: “Nice combination of theoretical things and practical playing. Teachers were very friendly and they knew what they were talking about. Thumb [sic] up for this course!”

Krisis in Kharkov: Megablitz, 9 June 2012

Megablitz megagame

As Jim Wallman said after the event “I say megagame because it fulfills the criteria – “teams of players with a hierachy of teams”. ” Krisis at Kharkov was by no means my first megagame (though the first in a loooong while), but it was my first experience of Tim Gow’s Megablitz wargame system – I’m pretty sure Tim would hate me calling it that, as it’s also been described as ‘kriegspiel with a few rules thrown in’! This blog post doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story, most of which I remain blissfully ignorant of. It’s a few disparate notes and pix of my own perspective.

As one of quite a few Megablitz virgins at this large game (nearly 20 attendees), my highly experienced CO (Martin Rapier) gave me the Rumanian 2 Mountain Infantry division to play with. This unit was described loosely as a ‘weak Rumanian division’, in comparison with yer average Rumanian division, which is necessarily ‘weak’. So double ‘weak’ then. At least expectations were lowered! Then the Russians deployed – something of a confirmation of low expectations.

Russian Steamroller

Russian Steamroller

At the front

I think that’s most of SW Front’s 28th Army on the left. Needless to say the 2 Mtn Div was shortly an ex-Division, and Martin re-deployed me briefly to the Rumanian Division to the right.

Megablitz is an operational level game in which each stand is a battalion or equivalent. With such a large scale it’s possible to do very large games – in Krisis at Kharkov we had 3 Soviet Armies versus two German Army Corps, one of which was a Panzer Corps. With Tim pushing the game on superbly, and all the players providing the right spirit and approach, we were able to complete 3 days of play (turns are 2 hours of game time long) between about 10:45 and 15:30, with 45 minutes for an excellent lunch (thanks to Keira). Players, especially senior commanders, are encouraged to ‘think big’, and each side duly obliged with sweeping breakthrough and encircling manoeuvres. As I was not directly involved in these, I simply applauded from afar and focused on my PBI.

My last action as the Rumanian commander was to report back to Corps HQ that the Russians were pouring through the gap on my left and racing forward towards the river line in our rear. This was completely in accord with the German plan for victory, which relied on luring the Russians towards Kharkov and into our trap. Of course as a Rumanian commander, I had absolute faith that the destruction of the Rumanian army would lead to a glorious victory for the Axis powers.

Day Two – the German sector

A switch to the German 11 Infantry Division showed the difference between the two Axis units. While Rumanian battalions were lucky to stretch to 2 Strength Points (SP) and had mostly 1s, the Germans had 3s! SPs represent combat capability – they give the number of dice rolled and are lost when hits occur. Combat happens mainly when stands are in physical contact, at which point you add up the SPs of the bunch of stands in contact plus its supporting artillery, tanks and so on. You give this number of d6 dice to your opponent to roll. The dice are rolled in a shielded combat box, so that you don’t know the details of the damage done to the opposing forces. Do this for the defending units too. Then cross-reference the stance of your troops with the stance of the enemy on a simple look-up table to arrive at a chance to hit for each die. A typical Attack versus Static (immobile defence) combat will yield each side a 5 or 6 to hit. When a unit reaches 0SP, it’s still in being, but cannot attack, and if it takes a further hit, it’s removed from play.

Combat Boxes and 10km rule

Combat Boxes and 10km rule

Fortunately for us in 11 Div and 19 Div, we were dug in, which allows infantry battalions to absorb the first hit. I say fortunately, because the Russian supporting artillery alone was adding about 12 dice to the point of main effort! In this game artillery was the big killer of infantry. The Soviet attacking infantry was not so lucky, and most of 28 Army infantry was written down by persistent pinning attacks on the German lines. All, I’m sure, in accord with Stalin’s grand design!

Most Of The Artillery Survived

Most Of The Artillery Survived

Day Three – Victory?

At dawn Army Command asked me to withdraw a division from the line to move or attack towards the left of our current position, in order to secure supply lines to the Panzer Korps, one division of which would be attacking from the north to link up with us. Tricky, given the number of Russian stands in front of us, but since we knew that most of the Russian battalions had already been hammered, we  reckoned they were too weak to break through our largely undamaged 19 Division. A re-shuffling of 11 Div to the left ensued, and I was able to commit about 6 battalions to a hasty defence of an unoccupied settlement and part of the original Rumanian trench line on the right hand side of the table I’d occupied at the start of the game. These troops were committed piecemeal, but the biggest difficulty was the Soviet Tank Corps to the rear of the new position. Their tanks arrived before ours, and while I like to think that a small pocket of Germans held out in the church till the panzers arrived, I fear that in reality the tanks were too late. Most of this portion of 11 Div was destroyed, but I’m sure the panzers linked up on day four.

11 Div End Game

11 Div End Game. You can just see the grey of the church tower top left-middle. The brown strip is a German minefield on the road. All the vehicles are Soviet!

19 Division’s position was intact. We had at least maintained the one remaining bridge over the river as a German supply line. With one Panzer Div returning to link up with 11 Div, the German position was secure, and the Russians doomed (at least that’s what they told me after the war was over!).

19 Div End Game

19 Div End Game

Thanks: Tim for running the game, Tom for the venue (DCC, Shrivenham) and the excellent tour afterwards, Keira for lunch, and all the players for a fun day, particularly to the experienced players who were happy to fill in us newbies with the technical details.

Operation Io – 10 July 1944

Operation Io is my title for our WW2 miniatures wargame played on 2 June 2012 at Abbey Wood Irregulars in Frome. It used 15mm models and our new Mission Command ruleset.

Dramatis Personae

Pete Connew and myself as umpires. 2 German players (Jerry and John) and 3 British players (James, Matt and Michael). Generous thanks to all participants, and also to Ken Natt, who’s Operation Jupiter Battlefront scenario was used as the basis of our offering.

Scenario: Operation Jupiter is the name of Monty’s latest attempt to break out of the Normandy bridgehead. Caen has fallen a month after D-Day – not exactly as planned – and the British are held up by German occupation of Hill 112, a relatively small but important piece of higher ground overlooking the British positions towards the beaches. An attempt to take it has already failed at the end of June, but now a bigger push is planned. Our little satellite game takes place just to the east of Hill 112, with the 5th Dorsets supporting the main attack by pushing through Les Duanes and Chateau de Fontaine to the Eterville Road.

Pete and I had planned this game as a relatively small one, so that players could learn the now re-written rules, and so we could take into account desertions caused by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The game set the British the simple task of pushing up the 6’x4′ table without worrying about flanks, and the Germans the simple task of stopping them. Game length was set at 12 turns, to end with the British in theory formed up on the Eterville Road for phase 2.


Forces were not quite historically accurate, but fairly close. The Brits had 5 Dorset – a pretty much standard British Infantry Battalion, plus B Squadron, 9th Royal Tank Regiment in Churchill VI tanks, plus 3 regiments of 25 pounders, representing most of 43 Wessex Division’s divisional artillery – we gave them 112 regiment for ‘free usage’, with the other two regiments performing a rolling barrage during turns 1 to 6. The Germans had 2 companies of Panzergrenadiers from 22 Panzergrenadier Regiment (ostensibly SS, but Wehrmacht in our representation), with most of a panzergrenadier heavy company in support, together with a battery of Hummels and one of Wespes. Unfortunately for the British we *did* include a Heavy Tank company as a reinforcement.


Starting at about 09:30 on the day, we had an extensive briefing on the rules, the table and the forces. Then both teams ran through their plans and marked up positions on their sketch maps. We were pushing troops around by 11:15. I was grateful for the extensive time for briefings, because I wanted both teams to be comfortable with the new action sequence we were introducing. Players carry out actions by company, selecting two actions for each element in the active company and completing that company before moving on to the next. We found that this gave a good game flow, with choices of how to sequence the elements in each company that were important tactically. With the limitation of only two actions, a single element cannot move, shoot and communicate (for example provide reports or receive orders) all at once, which introduces realistic delays in the transmission of changes of plan. This is particularly important when trying to co-ordinate artillery strikes – the British had a few near blue-on-blue situations with 25 pdr shots falling short, and the Germans managed to finish off one of their own shattered companies with a misplaced strike. So, some realism and fog of war there.

The game was intended to last 12 turns, representing the time between 05:00 and 07:00. By the end the British were supposed to have a couple of companies ready on the Eterville Road start line, or alternatively the Germans were to have stopped them short.

South East to Chateau de Fontaine

South East to Chateau de Fontaine, D Coy in foreground. Les Duanes burns middle left.

Action overview

The battle started with a rolling barrage from two British 25 pdr regiments of Divisional Artillery – this was pre-plotted for turns 1 to 6, and we gave the British some flexibility about where to put it. They decided to steam-roller the Horseshoe Wood (no doubt influenced by reports that it was an important German position), so the HE and smoke barrage rolled across it and back, then forward again to good effect. The 112th Regiment of artillery was available for pre-planned or on call strikes. The British used it to stomp Les Duanes into the ground – and the farm was fairly quickly demolished (our rules for structural damage proving easily up to the task).

The British plan of attack called for D Coy plus AT guns to advance on the right (west of Les Duanes) to the ridge and hold at that point. This was intended to command the open ground beyond. Meanwhile A and C Coys, supported on the left by B Coy, from the rear by HQ and with direct support in the line from Churchills, were to advance on a broad front to the east of Les Duanes, the right-most Coy ear-marked to prod any remaining Germans in the farm. These Coys would then exploit through Chateau de Fontaine to the road beyond. As B Coy moved up to extend the battalion line, the eastern attack turned into a three company frontage advance with Churchills supporting immediately to the east of the farm.

D Coy Advances

D Coy Advances

D Company’s advance is easily narrated. Unknown to the British, who neglected immediate battlefield reconnaissance, the Germans had deployed the whole of 5th Panzergrenadier company dug in on the forward edge of the ridgeline (despite umpire recommendations to go for a defence of the reverse slope in some depth). In addition there was a minefield immediately to the west of Les Duanes, fortuitously avoided by the advancing infantry. When the small amount of covering smoke cleared, the Germans had a clear view of the advancing infantry and of the limbered 6 pdr battery (too close, too close!). The latter were quickly put out of action and the infantry very roughly handled. An HMG and mortar skilfully positioned behind the minefield gave the Germans some cross-fire, and the remains of the company pulled back to their start line and took no further part in the proceedings.

Remains of the D

Remains of the D

The main British attack ran into half of the other Panzergrenadier company (6th), also deployed and dug in on the forward edge of the ridge. Supporting elements were back in the Horseshoe Wood, about to suffer under the barrage. However, the British infantry had the Churchills and mortars in support. A Coy was quickly engaged by the main German trench line and suffered significant losses. B Coy on the right advanced carefully into the ruins of Les Duanes, supported by the tanks, thereby outflanking the German trench line. The Panzergrenadiers opted to bug out and retired back into the woods, expecting the artillery barrage to continue southwards. However, it was programmed to roll back north, and it duly did so, breaking the company. In accordance with their own plan, German artillery struck Horseshoe Wood as the British advanced into it, but the shells fell short, catching the survivors of the broken company and narrowly missing 22 Battalion’s HQ. The immediate result of the main attack was that the German defenders were lost, but one British company had taken very significant casualties, and another had suffered a little.

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Significantly at this stage, just as the British barrage fell silent, the German artillery had the range of the British line at Horseshoe Wood – the British never located the German FOs, deployed at each end of the ridge. Seeking to maintain this position and use it as a springboard for further advance, C Coy stayed there under fire, when perhaps pulling back would have been a safer option. 112 Artillery regiment, having been shelling Chateau de Fontaine successfully, was switched to counter-battery action and effectively silenced the Wespe battery.

The Churchills now ranged forward to and beyond Chateau de Fontaine, leaving B Coy to advance along the road into Chateau de Fontaine, supported on their left by the remains of A and C Coys. It looked as if the British, despite heavy losses, might win the day.

Not so. We’d given the Germans a chance to gain the help of a company of 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion. These tanks had refueled in double-quick time and took up blocking positions on the bocage on the Eterville Road due south of the Chateau de Fontaine. They revealed their position by shooting up a reconnoitering Bren carrier, but the Churchills were already too far forward to pull back easily. Smoke became their friend, and realistically, they would have withdrawn at this point. Instead the commander decided to have a go at the Tigers, and demonstrated how ineffective the 75mm/L40 gun is against their frontal armour. It didn’t help that one of the Tigers moved round the flank of the Churchills’ position, so rather than the Churchills getting the Tigers in the flank, it was the other way round.

Churchills Meet Tigers

Churchills Meet Tigers

As the Tigers were deploying to stop the Churchills, 5th Kompanie moved back towards Chateau de Fontaine. This movement coincided with the advance of B Coy, the two units separated by the hedges of the main road. The Germans were quickest to react and successfully engaged the head of B Coy, which broke and fell back towards Les Duanes.


The 5th Ko Panzergrenadier counterattack and the stop line of the Tigers were decisive. All British companies had been damaged or written down, and only a single Churchill element survived the encounter with the Tigers – an unfair fight in any event. However, as 22 Panzergrenadier had suffered the loss of two companies (the heavy weapons of 8 Ko having largely been lost to 25 pdr fire), it was unlikely that the Germans could retake the ridge line, even if anxious British calls for SP antitank guns were being made to Brigade at 07:00.

The British attack this day had failed, but the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses of manpower. The result was roughly in line with the historical results of the overall attack in the area of Hill 112, though the British had pushed on to the next village before the Tigers hit them – we took a bit of historical licence to introduce the Tigers early.


It’s interesting to note what might have happened if either side had fought the battle in accordance with expected doctrine, versus the actual actions of their opponent.

The expected British attack mode would have been a ‘two up and two back’ approach following in on the barrage, with Churchills supporting and the two rear companies ready to exploit through the other two. Deploying and operating in this fashion to the east of Les Duanes would have caught the forward German deployment in the barrage, at least suppressing it. Bearing in mind that this German company (6th) bugged out even without the barrage, I would strongly argue that it would have been destroyed quickly (as happened historically to the forward German outposts in the historical battle). Pounding Les Duanes was a good idea in any event, as this unhinges the German line. The British would then have been unopposed except for artillery fire on the way to Chateau de Fontaine, as 5 Ko was out of position beyond the farm. A British company as a right flank block for this advance would have prevented any further intervention from 5 Ko, and it’s not impossible to believe that the Churchills, with perhaps some Bren carrier borne infantry might have made it to the Eterville Road start line before the arrival of the Tigers. Interestingly it was their own barrage playing back and forth over Horseshoe Wood for several turns that held up the British. With a more conventional approach, their advance should have been more swift.

The expected German defence was a reverse slope defence in depth centred on strong points, particularly at Les Duanes, Horseshoe Wood and Chateau de Fontaine. Digging in within the buildings would have given them more protection from artillery fire, though troops in Les Duanes would probably have been doomed. In this circumstance the main fight would have been at Chateau de Fontaine, more defensible than elsewhere, while carefully positioned hidden elements behind the ridge or hedge lines could have given some cross-fire from flanks and rear to slow down the British. The Churchills would have found it much more difficult to range forward, because the German Panzerschreck teams could have been used – the Panzerschrecks were unable to engage the Churchills in the game. Unfortunately the efficiency of the Tigers, the surprise attack of 5 Ko on B Coy and the great width of the British attack meant that the weaknesses of the German defences could not be explored.

Thanks to all the players for a very enjoyable day, and a good exercise for our rules.