Archive for Rules

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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Living Rules

Remember the scene in The Matrix where they’re slotting cartridges into Neo’s head and he sits up and says “I know Kung Fu”? That’s every wargamer’s dream, except they’d want to sit up and say “I know ASL.” You get a new game, you pull off the shrinkwrapping, you unfold the map and fondle the components, but then there are the rules, oh man, the rules. Wargamers spend a lot of time with rules. Rule books often run 32 or 48 pages; anything 16 pages or less is considered “short.” Not surprisingly, wargamers have a different relationship to rules than most gamers. Reading rules it not “fun,” not exactly, but it’s part of the hobby and not without intrinsic interest and even art.

Games often have learning scenarios or programmed instruction sequences so players can gradually absorb a complex rules set, playing the game and layering on a new rules section every time. Some gamers set up a game and learn by pushing the pieces around, others like to give the rules a complete read through first. (There’s an ethnographic gold mine here for anyone interested in procedural learning.) Many games borrow and re-use similar concepts, and part of the interest of the hobby is viewing the rules as a window onto how designers are thinking about their subject and where they’re choosing to innovate. Yet many rule sets are ambiguous, poorly written, or otherwise open to interpretation and variants. Given their scope and complexity, wargame rules almost invariably have errata. In the old days, you would get the errata by sending a SASE to the publisher or maybe through one of the hobby’s house organs or zines if you had a subscription or were lucky enough to catch the right issue. Nowadays, of course, errata is available over the internet, and this distribution platform has changed the way rules are developed. Game companies have evolved the practice of “living rules,” where the ability to use the Web to electronically distribute rules means that a rules set is not necessarily fixed and inviolate once a game is published. Some gamers consider this a mixed blessing, partly because the rules can change under your feet, but also because the availability of living rules can sometimes become a crutch for shoddy playtesting.

Living rules turns out to be any interesting bit of phrasing, given the conventional wisdom that game rules are absolute and inviolate. Certainly this holds true for traditional games like Chess or Scrabble, but even contemporary Euro games tend to have very stable rules sets. One notable exception concerns the scoring of farmers in the popular tile laying game Carcassone, but even there you have variants rather than a living, evolving rules set. Wargames, by contrast, offer a game genre where rules sets are often malleable, based on player feedback, the deisnger’s changing intentions, new historical research, or all of these. Rules are therefore social texts, at least sometimes determined by the experience of a player community. (I would hasten to distinguish this from games played as part of folk traditions, where rules and variants are passed down orally.)

In the comments below, E Holmes says:

games are not static objects but are living, evolving structures that begin and end with human experience and involvement

With this I agree absolutely, but I have to depart from him on the next point:

Games are a human experience and reflect human experience; they do not operate on formal laws existing in any external ‘reality’.

In fact I think what’s unique about games is precisely that they operate on formal laws that arbitrarily impinge on our own reality. This of course is the well known concept of the “magic circle,” after Huizinga. Wargming underscores the extent to which the magic circle is a social construct, the product of a particular community of experts and enthusiasts. But to deny the formal ontology of games seems to me to deny the possibility of game play itself as anything other the unstructured make-believe play of a child. Or Calvinball. Agreeing that games (and their rules) are living, evolving artifacts seems to me to restore a useful social and material dimension to game studies, but it does not follow that we have to deny the formal ontology of game play.

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ASL A.2 Errors: “All results stand once play has progressed past the point of commission.”

Jesper Juul, in Half-Real (MIT 2005) writes about rules: “Game rules are designed to be easy to learn, to work without requiring any ingenuity from the players, but they also provide challenges that require ingenuity to overcome” (55). He continues:

Rules are designed to be above discussion in the sense that a specific rule should be sufficiently clear so that players can agree about how to use it. Rules describe what players can and cannot do, and what should happen in response to player actions. Rules should be implementable without any ingenuity. (55-6)

According to Juul, “Easy to learn but difficult to master” is the paradox at the heart of good game rules. But games with procedurally complex rules are not necessarily flawed or bad games. Advanced Squad Leader (ASL), originally published by the Avalon Hill Game Company, is undoubtedly the most procedurally complex wargame ever designed, and quite likely by extension the most procedurally complex boardgame ever designed. It is not easy to learn, nor master. The game (more properly, game system, you acquire it as a series of modules) focuses on Word War II small unit combat, with counters representing infantry squads and individual leaders, vehicles, and heavy weapons. Here is not the place to go into detail about ASL itself, which in theory allows a player to recreate any small unit action from any theater or phase of the war (see the Wikipedia entry linked above). What I want to focus on is the role of player error in the play of the game. Given the size, scope, and complexity of ASL’s rules—its procedures and their interactions—human error in the application of the rules is inevitable. This situation is anticipated in the rules manual itself (some 200 pages long), with the second rules case of the game stating the following:

A.2 ERRORS: All results stand once play has progressed past the point of commission. In other words, if an error is discovered after play has passed that point, the game cannot be backed up to correct the error, even if such an error is in violation of a rule. For example, assume an attack is resolved without application of a proper DRM [dice roll modifier], and a subsequent attack is resolved, or another unit moved, or play proceeds to another phase before a player remembers he was entitled to a DRM in the previous attack, thus changing the result. His failure to apply that DRM at the time of commission has cost him his right to claim that DRM. Or perhaps a player moves a unit before remembering that he wanted other units to attempt rally in the RPh or fire or entrench in the PFPh. Once the phase for execution of a particular action has passed, the player has lost any claim to that capability.

Thus the game builds the provision for error into its own formal system, so that error is accommodated within the formal structure of game play. The issue with ASL is not that the rules are badly written—the rules manual (pictured below) is for the most part a model of technical clarity—but that the number of rules, and their interactions and permutations is so vast that it is unreasonable to think human players, even experts, will always implement all of them correctly. (Early examples of play published in Avalon Hill’s own house magazine, The General, contained flagrant errors.) On the one hand then, a game of ASL’s formal scope and complexity represents a kind of limit case for Juul’s discussion of rules. (The number of interactions is so complex that ASL players has evolved an axion, COWTRA, “concentrate on what the rules allow.”) Yet ASL also provokes other kinds of questions, including what kind of pleasure one gains from playing such a procedure-heavy game.

The ASL Rulebook

An ASL game scenario is a kind of world building. In Juul’s terms, it is both incomplete and (occasionally) incoherent. The game system is capable not only of accommodating movement and firing, but a vast array of other actions. A building struck by an artillery shell may “rubble,” in turn collapsing other buildings around it. Underbrush may be set on fire. Squads may generate heroes, who can become wounded, but nonetheless survive to scrounge an abandoned machine gun which might then malfunction only to be repaired and then lost when the wounded hero is captured (he may then escape). A tank can throw a tread as it crashes through a wall, rotating its turret to fire at a target glimpsed for a moment through a narrow village street. These extraordinary permutations of rules interactions generate what players routinely refer to as “narrative.” (ASL is often described by its fans as representing not real world small unit combat, but World War II as it was refought in Hollywood film.)

Here is some of what ASL has to teach us about complex game rules:

  • Games with procedurally complex rules, rules that are not easy to master, can succeed as games;
  • Mastery of complex rules builds identity and community: interpretation of ambiguous rules, identification of errata, creating house rules and variants, and helping other players learn the rules are all activities routinely undertaken by ASL players (there is are multiple active player communities online);
  • In ASL, the proper application and execution of rules functions as a surrogate for real world military tactics; the designers explicitly tell players that how well they know the rules and can take advantage of them is a reflection of how well they are leading their men (“In essence, the player’s knowledge of the system and methodical applications of its benefits as opportunities present themselves become an added skill factor better representing the abilities of an experienced battlefield commander” [A57]).
  • Thus, mastery of a complex rules system is rewarded, not only through more successful game play, but as a explicit surrogate to the game’s fiction;
  • Complex rules are conducive to that elusive quality gamers call “narrative”; the perception or experience of narrative often seems to arise from unlikely outcomes or combinations and permutations of rules interactions (such as those described above);
  • Finally, rules can safely accommodate and contain the conditions for their own suspension.

I will be writing more about ASL in future posts, including its capacity for “narrative” and possible worlds theory.

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