Archive for Wargames

Grognards Invade Terra Nova

Nice thread on board wargames unspooling on Terra Nova, a group blog that serves as a hub for the virtual worlds brain trust. They give a shout out to the first piece of online writing I ever did about wargames, “I Was a Teenage Grognard,” which originated as a blog entry over on my MGK site and which seems to have found a good audience. That same piece garnered an extended reference over at Scratchpad a few weeks ago.

I’m glad to see the interest in board wargames in the mainstream ludology community, and that more and more folks are picking up on what’s seemed obvious to me for a while now, that these games remain relevant and have things to teach designers, players, and game scholars.

That’s basically the thesis of a longish piece I have forthcoming in Third Person, the follow up to the First Person and Second Person volumes already published by the MIT Press, and, like its predecessors, expertly edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. My chapter, called “War Stories: Board Wargames and Vast (Procedural) Narratives,” argues that it is procedural granularity that stimulates what Marie-Laure Ryan has termed narrativity, i.e. a game’s potential to serve as a narrative agent. The volume should be out in late 2008.

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The Good Old Days

Picked up an old issue of The Avalon Hill Game Company’s house organ The General on eBay (May-June 1977) and was amused to read this response from the editor in the letters column:

Although S&T [Strategy and Tactics, SPI’s rival mag] delights in passing along news of our impending games before we do, you’ve got to keep in mind that their “Gossip” column is aptly named. Much of the information they pass on in reference to our operations is inaccurate, if not pure fabrication. It’s sort of a friendly game we play. They try to “jerk our chain” by printing our “news” first and we get our jollies by feeding false reports to their “spies.”

Ah, the good old days, when there were only two companies and three numbers on the counters.

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Napoleon’s Triumph on Pre-Order

Napoleon’s Triumph, Bowen Simmons’ follow-up to his unique Bonaparte at Marengo, is now available for pre-order. As previously discussed on ZOI, Simmons’ designs are distinguished by their graphical fidelity to “the look,” the distinctive visual aesthetic characteristic of battle maps and military cartography.

Napoleon's Triumph (photograph by Bowen Simmons)
Photograph by Bowen Simmons. 

The Austerlitz game (pictured above), which is about twice the size with twice as many pieces as its predecessor, promises to remain faithful to the core elements of the previous design, while also introducing hidden units, leaders (note the battle flags above), and corps-level formations.

Bonaparte at Marengo has come into criticism in some quarters for typically bearing scant resemblance to the actual battle, either at the tactical or the operational level. In the case of Austerlitz, the game will need to convey some sense of the shambles that was the Austrian/Russian command hierarchy, without straitjacketing the Allied player (the tension between the desire to preserve some evidence of historical fidelity without making the game run on rails is ubiquitous in wargame design). The game will also need to account for the literal fog of war that covered the battlefield at the beginning of the day and screened the initial troop movements on both sides, dispositions that sealed the fate of the respective armies.

Napoleon’s Triumph is due to ship on August 15; I am looking forward to playing it.

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Peter Shulman’s War

Peter Shulman's War
Photograph by Peter Shulman. 

. . . the story of an outdoor war game that artist Peter Shulman has been playing for more than forty years. It has some very unusual aspects to it that make it totally unique. It is in fact a huge installation type work of art. At the present time the war contains over 60,000 hand sculpted soldiers and more than 4,400 scale models, vehicles in 1/35 and 1/32 scale aircraft in 1/48 scale that cover over 20 acres.

Read all about it at Peter Shulman’s War; see also an interview with Shulman.

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War on Terror: The Boardgame

War on Terror

The goal of War on Terror, the boardgame is to liberate the world, ridding it of fear and terrorism forever. Naturally, only the biggest and strongest Empires are up to this task and so a certain amount of dominance needs to be shown. Alternatively, you can play as the terrorists, fighting for a world without empires.

Read all about it here.

This is actually the second game I know of to bear this title. Lightning War on Terror (Decision Games) offers a rather more earnest take on the subject (the “lightning” refers to the speed of game play, not the blitzkrieg).

Via Boing Boing.

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Tai Hai Feng Yun (Mainland Chinese Wargame)

Photographs of what is apparently a hobbyist/entertainment wargame published in mainland China entitled Tai Hai Feng Yun, The Changes of the Taiwan Strait, depicting a near-future conflict between the Republic of Taiwan and the PRC.

The rules are dated October 2006.

It may be an unauthorized copy of the 2001 When Dragons Fight, published by Ty Bomba’s XTR.

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Thanks to joserizal on CSW for posting these.

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Robert Louis Stevenson at Play

A surprising number of literary figures played “wagames” of one sort or another. H. G. Wells, of course, but also the Bronte sisters (who made up elaborate games with their brother’s toy soldiers). Fletcher Pratt, the fantasyist who was also an amateur naval historian. Hans Christian Anderson. And, as we see here, Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a nice facsimile reproduction of an 1898 Scribner’s article that describes Stevenson’s campaigns with a set of Napoleonic wargame rules.

Stevenson at Play

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ASL Boards on Google 3D

Someone’s been using Google 3D to do some cool basic renderings of the ASL geomorphic map boards.

ASL Board 3 Made with Google 3D

Update 2/25: Here’s another.

Another Google 3-D ASL rendering

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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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