Archive for Game Play

Playing A Game of War

This past weekend I sat down with gaming bud Peter Bogdasarian to play through Guy Debord’s A Game of War (I own the Atlas Press edition). Peter (a successfully published game designer himself) offered some great insights, posted here with his permission:

Debord described his game as being based on Clausewitzian principles, a study in 19th century warfare and the importance of lines of communication. The scenario is a clash between symmetrical forces of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Debord’s game is therefore in the tradition of Tactics II and (going back farther) some of the military chess variants, such as the one designed by A.S. Yurgelevich in 1933. I think this balance of military power is where Debord (and similar wargames) depart from Clausewitz.

The key aphorism from On War is war represents the continuation of politics by other means. Debord’s offering, however, divorces the conflict from its political aspect. These two nations are equally powerful and, on paper, possess no intrinsic advantage over one another. Furthermore, they can only triumph by either the complete destruction of the other’s army or the seizure of his two arsenals (which requires conquering one’s way to the back of the map).

Consider the situation – two equivalent nations of equal might have decided to wage a war to the death. Wars are avoided under these conditions and, when they must be fought, are not begun with the idea of fighting to the finish.

Conflict normally results from the perception of weakness, either in the present or forthcoming in the future. Germany, in 1914, sees Russia rearming and Russian officers enthuse to their Prussian counterparts about how they will crush them once the projected modernization is complete. The foes of the French Revolution see a threat to the infrastructure of their own countries from revolutionary ideals – then, as the Allied armies meet with defeat after defeat, Napoleon sees the potential to turn battlefield victories into Empire. By failing to make credible the calculus behind its struggle, Debord’s game fails to grasp the essential, enticing element of Clausewitz’s narrative of war.

What players are left with is an engagement between equal antagonists where the defender enjoys the advantage.(*) Units in A Game of War are stronger on the defense than on the attack and the limited number of moves allows a defender to bring more force to bear where counterattacking. The only recipe for success under these conditions is for a player to overstack a wing of his army (as I did against Matthew in our game) to attempt to attain decisive local superiority. The historical answer to such a strategy is for the defenders to cede territory for time, seeking to draw the invaders forward and strain their lines of communication.

But Debord’s game gives players no incentive to fall into this historical pattern. I possessed no reason to push my forces forward after seizing what I could from the initial encounter battle. Taking territory from Matthew brought me no closer to victory and did not weaken his forces through desertion or despair. My army cost me nothing to sustain as a force in being – I could maintain it for the length of the game in place without any cost to my society. The clash between equal antagonists (as one might expect), is therefore likely to lead to stalemate (Columbia’s Wizard Kings often ended this way).

What’s missing is an underlying narrative to drive the action. Imagine a different scenario – one where Matthew starts with an army enrolling, say, half the infantry of mine, but with two scheduled drafts of conscripts which will ultimately make his force half again as large. Now, when we sit down at the table, my incentives are obvious – I must attack while I enjoy superiority in force and, if need be, risk my whole army to do so.

As I played A Game of War, I found myself considering these other, more fertile variations. What if my country enjoyed the advantages of the Chassepot rifle or Krupp gun? What if I chose to deploy a small corps of hardened professionals against seemingly endless waves of peasant conscripts? These are scenarios which both fire the imagination and evoke the stories of 19th century war; not this dry confrontation of symmetrical powers fielding identical military systems.

Creating a game about war thus requires more then selecting military units and engineering a system – it is about framing the narrative of the conflict between the players. War, even in the abstract, cannot be removed from political realities. To depart from this model is not only to lose the essential element of war, but also an essential element of the game itself by removing players’ incentives to take action.

(*) – assigning the advantage to the attacker (as Chess does with its system of captures) can create a different dynamic – players are driven to aggression against the other side because the defense is made untenable. Stalemate can still result in the endgame as capability wanes from the destruction of a player’s more capable units.

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Habit of Victory Demo

Your host in action yesterday at the Chantilly Game Parlor (I’m in the middle). I’m participating in a demo of OSG’s Habit of Victory, on Napoleon’s 1807 Polish campaign. Designers Kevin Zucker and Mark Herman were both there; that’s Mark eating a cookie.

Habit of Victory Demo
Photo credit: Wade Hyett.

More pics are here. Kevin and Mark have each designed games I’ve been playing since I was a teenager, so it was great to meet them both. (And that’s sure one nice thing about the DC area—seems like half the people in the hobby live within an hour or two of town.)

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Roll a D6 for Armageddon

Counter from NATO

One of my favorite wargames growing up in the eighties was NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games). This was a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. For a kid who had just read his first Tom Clancy novel, it was heady stuff indeed. Massive columns of Soviet armor rolling across the border, a desperate defense, a maelstrom of modern weaponry. Whoah.

Although it was the hot topic during the eighties, I never thought I would have any interest in NATO vs. Warsaw Pact gaming again. I was surprised, though, by how much fun I’ve been having with Lock ‘n’ Load’s Word at War: Eisenbach Gap, a smash-mouth shoot ’em up that gives you Team Yankee facing off against platoons of T-72s. So this past week I set up the old NATO game with its now obsolescent future, and once more the red columns came rumbling through Fulda and across the North German plain.

Any game on NATO‘s scale has to deal with the nuclear option. Gamers being who they are, how do you keep them from just pressing the big red button right around turn 2? Eisenbach Gap is able to sidestep that question because it’s really not much more than a firefight game. NATO, however, offered an ingenious solution. Here’s how it worked.

Either player, during the appropriate turn phase, had the option of initiating tactical nuclear warfare. If you did so, you immediately rolled a die: on a 4, 5, 6 you got away with it, and the dynamics of the game changed dramatically as each player was able to use nuclear delivery assets to strike the opposition’s force on the battlefield. (There’s nothing like airbursting one over Third Shock Army’s HQ to bring that pesky Soviet offensive to a halt . . .) But, here’s the rub: if you rolled a 1, 2, or 3—a 50% chance—the game ended. Immediately. That’s it. It’s over, no do-overs. This represents the possibility of the “limited” exchange spiraling out of control. As the rulebook explains, “In this case the initiating player loses decisively for having brought down Armageddon.”

As a kid, playing NATO solitaire, I approached this decision, and the die roll that followed, with the greatest solemnity. I would make myself wait and come back to the game table a couple of hours later to see if I still really wanted to do it. If so, then I would toss the die the length of the room, to make sure I got a clean roll. And if I was unlucky, I would dutifully pack up the game and put it away.

What I like about this mechanic is that it breaks the frame of the game. By forcing the player to risk something very real—not just prospects for victory, because every wargamer wins and loses lots of games—but the time and experience already invested in setting up and playing the game and all the potential play that still remained. All on a coin toss—no modifiers, just a straight up 50% chance of oblivion.

Because let’s face it, having to pack up and put away a game prematurely is probably the only kind of nuclear deterrent a wargamer can understand.

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Bonaparte at Marengo Sample Game

Here’s a nicely laid out sample game of Bonaparte at Marengo, which I’ve previously written about. BaM is not your typical hex and counter wargame—for one thing it uses neither hexes nor counters nor dice—but it’s well worth a look from anyone interested in just how innovative and elegant wargame mechanics can get. There’s no analytic commentary, just turn-by-turn illustrations of the moves, so the casual reader won’t take away much about actual strategy and decision-making, but the rules themselves are also available for free download and will illuminate the sample game.

See also designer Bowen Simmons’ essay, “Chance and Wargames.” Rumor has it we should see his next project as soon as the end of this month, Napoleon’s Triumph, an expansion and revision of the BaM system to cover the battle of Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, incidentally, is a notoriously difficult battle to game, which gives me an idea for another post . . .

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Game Play: Musket and Pike

So I mentioned I did some pike pushing last weekend.

The game in question is entitled This Accursed Civil War, designed by Ben Hull and published by GMT Games. The box contains maps and counters for playing five battles from the English Civil War. This Accursed Civil War is itself part of a series of games entitled the Musket and Pike Battles Series. Other games in the series cover battles from the 30 Years War on the continent, a conflict characterized by the technological transition from armies with long, pointy sticks to armies with gunpowder weapons. Hence the title, Musket and Pike.

The series concept is worth a note or two. As I’ve previously suggested, learning rules is probably the single biggest impediment to the actual play of board wargames. With series games, however, you have a common rules set that is applicable to multiple titles in the series. Having learned the Musket and Pike rules and owning all four games in the series, there are about 20 different battles I can play right out of the box. Some readers will recognize this as an expansion of the old SPI concept of the quadrigame, which also used a common rules set to play four different games all packaged together. Relying on a single rules set to cover diverse situations can sometimes straightjacket a designer, but the format also allows for a page or two of game-specific rules that apply only to the battle at hand.

The idea of gaming a “battle” is also worth a mention. As I’ve also noted elsewhere, wargames come in several different scales. Rather than gaming a particular battle, I could have opted to play a game that would cover the entire English Civil War. The battle game is the mainstay of the hobby, however; sometimes referred to as “grand tactical” level games, the appeal is that you have a well circumscribed historical event and the player has a clear role to occupy, namely that of the army commander.

The battle we played was Marston Moor, the largest and bloodiest fight of the English Civil War, featuring a mixed force of Parliamentarians and their Scots allies against a Royalist army under Prince Rupert outside of York. See Wikipedia for more of the history. Here’s how the game looks set up; the Royalists are in blue, the Parliamenterians in red, and the Scots in green:

This Accursed Civil War, Marsten Moor

And here’s a close up of the Parliamentarian cavalry wing under the command of one Oliver Cromwell:

Marsten Moor, close up of Cromwell's cavalry

Because the armies of the day needed open ground to deploy effectively, most battlefields in this period were anonymous open terrain. There were no inherent geographical objectives, nor were the battles themselves subtle affairs; the objective was typically to drive the enemy from the field and one did this by killing. Here the only terrain feature of note is the hedge which affords a portion of the Royalist line some scant cover. One wins the game by inflicting casualties on the enemy.

What’s subtle is the actual game play, or as a tactician might put it, “battle management.” Here’s also where the current state of the art in game design becomes visible. Were this an old style SPI wargame, such as the once very popular 30 Years War Quad, each player would be free to move all of his units every turn in whatever manner he wished, subject only to the limitations of terrain and the presence of the enemy. Units would engage in combat until eliminated, and units would perform at peek effectiveness until eliminated. The player enjoyed an omniscient perspective on the proceedings and was free to act on it.

Here, however, things work differently. As was the case historically, these cardboard armies are divided into “wings,” left, center, and right. In this era one typically had a heavy infantry center, and cavalry on either wing. The game system mandates that each wing always be in one of four Orders States: Charge, Make Ready, Receive Charge, and Rally. Each Orders State comes with inherent constraints that dictate a unit’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Changing from one Orders State to another is the job of the Wing Commanders, who are represented by counters rated for their historical performance. Thus Cromwell will prove much more adept at changing orders for his wing than another, more mediocre commander on the field. (The success or failure of the actual orders change is resolved by a die roll, modified for various factors.) Note that the player’s authority is here being dispersed among his cardboard representatives; as Army Commander, you might spot a perfect opportunity for your cavalry wing to charge, but if the Wing Commander can’t convert orders from Make Ready the rules will forbid engagement with the enemy. What we have then, is fog of war via procedural abstraction—the game system willfully imposes friction on a player’s ability to operate in an effort to model a variety of battlefield effects that would impinge on the abilities of a real commander, everything from a bumbling performance by subordinate to literally being unable to see through the thick powder smoke.

Most armchair generals will drive their cardboard troops relentlessly; this often produces a-historical results, because it allows an army to fight to the last man. Thus the critique that a game system is too bloody is one of the most common in wargaming. Far from being a hawkish virtue, a “bloody” system means that the game produces too many casualties, typically because the armchair generals are using their troops in a way that no historical commander ever could or would. At Marston Moor there were about 4000 casualties in some two hours of fighting, extreme by the standards of the day. A good recreation of the battle should produce about the same loss rates. A good game system thus reflects the way a unit gradually looses effectiveness over the course of an engagement. Musket and Pike actually tracks a unit’s current effectiveness on three separate vectors: formation, morale, and casualties. Mechanically this is done by placing marker counters on top of or underneath the individual unit.

It is extremely rare in Musket and Pike for a unit to dwindle away to nothing through actual casualties received. Typically, what happens is that the unit’s morale—an abstract representation of its will to fight—degrades until it eventually “breaks” and retreats (“routs”) from the combat, regardless of the wishes of the player. Likewise, given that the armies of the day required tight, disciplined formations to fight effectively, the game system tracks the deterioration of ranks through movement over difficult terrain, contact with the enemy, and other debilitating effects. Formation and to some extent unit morale, though never actual casualties, can be restored through Rally actions, but this involves pulling units out of the fight and giving them time to recover. Hence battle management, that is managing your martial resources by feeding fresh troops into the fray in order to maintain pressure on the enemy. Musket and Pike battles are typically won when one player is able to break the other’s battle management cycle, that is inflict losses faster than his opponent is able to recover from them, eventually causing their position to collapse, at which point the army will rout and cede the field.

In the actual game, I had the Parliamentarian allies. After an ineffectual artillery barrage my heavy infantry center lurched forward, a couple of formations foundering due to the enemy guns, but if there’s one thing the Roundheads have in this scenario it’s heavy infantry. The real action, though was over on my left, where I activated Cromwell’s cavalry wing. Despite managing to get Cromwell himself killed early on I pretty much pulverized my opponent’s right wing and was able to turn the whole flank. The constraints of the orders system meant he couldn’t get his guys out of Receive Charge to redeploy and meet the threat. The Allies achieved a decisive victory, dear old Cromwell fertilizing the daisies notwithstanding.

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