Topic: Wargame Design Musings
Rumbles across the internet...
I heard of the recent exchange, so I am marching to the sound of the guns...
Before the academics in the crowd begin doing the ready, shoot, aim... I have taught graduate level Military strategy courses for the Naval War College and do so currently for Georgetown University. I have also been building military simulations for the Pentagon for thirty years. I do this so I can make my point and avoid having to post bona fides later.
There is always some level of uncertainty at all levels of battle, but in a pre-gunpowder linear battle the question is how does the uncertainty impact tactical decisions and are blocks the best model for representing this effect? I would submit that blocks are lots of fun in a two player game and bring good psychological tension, but most block games have mechanics where the units do not reveal themselves until the forces are in contact. Never been in an ACW battle or seen what Pompey saw at Pharsalus, but at some point prior to actual contact you do kind of know what is coming. However, from a model point of view if you cannot do anything or little about it then for all intents and purposes it has the same effect. The question is does having a higher level of information (counters revealed) allow for generous tactical reactions? If the force, space, and time factors are appropriately tuned to the information there are many ways to skin the uncertainty cat.
My take on it is reserves and tactical traps should be allowed in the system (hidden deployment at Dara in our Cataphract game), but having a reasonable knowledge of the width and general troop density of the front lines does not seem unreasonable. In fact not knowing seems more unreasonable. Dust from marching occurs once the forces are in motion, but most of these battles had a forming up period with a lull of sorts so I would expect at some point a good view of the enemy front line would present itself. Also, not every battle was fought on a dusty plain. Wet grass does not obscure vision on a pre-gunpowder battlefield. Now once folks start closing and stabbing each other things would get confused, but most games lock in the frontlines at some point so tactical maneuvers become more difficult anyway. The action tends to be on the flanks where you can get around someone or using the Alexandrian technique of creating an interior flank, etc. In the Roman way of war, when it works you just bust through the front. The ability of the Romans to line change and conduct sub-unit maneuvers was based on some level of tactical knowledge at the point of contact otherwise why would they invent a doctrine that made no sense.
There are lots of ways to get there, but although blocks are a viable option, they do have some shortcomings when it comes to how well they represent the appropriate level of uncertainty in a tactical battle. I think there are better techniques and some of the alternate techniques offer more options in solo play.
First, I wonder if we, in hindsight, overestimate how much knowledge that one person, (the man - usually - responsible for making decisions on the spur of the moment, in the heat of battle, with death, noise, and the screams of fellow humans assaulting his senses, with conflicting information being relayed to him every minute), really could bring to bear on his decision-making process in the midst of battle, no matter how clear a day it was, how little dust, and how flat and open the terrain.
In modern combat where a few folks with lots of firepower can move and conceal themselves, I agree, but I thought the conversation was around linear battles and I was specifically focusing on pre-gunpowder linear battles. I believe that if we were able to see one ancient battle, we would have seen one ancient battle. This is why most of the GBOH scenarios have lots of special rules because the unique circumstances often had a dramatic impact on the outcome. I also would note that I have always followed the view that we are at best guessing as many of the ancient sources are not contemporaneous to the time, often writing centuries after the event from sources that did not survive into modern times. Hard to know, so I do not try for truth, just a spectrum of possible situations as indicated by the sources and let the players explore all of them. For example our Pharsalus battle has multiple options for the order of battles and tactics depending on who you believe.
What a commander did or did not know about what he was confronting varied across the spectrum. Let's take the battle of Metaurus. The Carthaginians knew that they were finished because they heard the morning trumpets and could count that the number of legions had doubled over night. So, the notion that ancient commanders were a befuddled confused lot that walked blind into a combat situation was true on occasion, such as Kadesh, but on other occasions they knew the basic score.
I always go back to the expectations of the participants. Any successful traps and ambushes first occurred at the operational level, prior to contact. That is why it is so hard to balance some of the ancient battles as in many cases like Metaurus the loser had already lost ala Sun Tzu's dictums and in the Carthaginian case they already knew it before they had left camp. There were situations when both sides were surprised, but I think that is more the exception that makes the rule.
Second, out of honest curiosity and respect for someone who has deigned many wargames that I have played, enjoyed, and agreed with the history portrayed, what are those shortcomings that blocks have that can be better handled by counters?
Blocks are great, but they are one tool in the kitbag for me. I find myself with Richard on this. I think they really shine at the operational level in almost any period, but for pre-gunpowder linear battles, I think the hidden intelligence element is improperly represented. Not some fact, just my view. In a linear battle although there is a lot of noise that noise is also information. Twelve guys cannot sound like a thousand up close, so the notion that a weak block at a football field away is going to fool me into thinking I am under heavy assault just does not make sense even with dust and such. Even in modern combat tanks do not sneak up on anyone, even quiet ones. Of course there are great exceptions where acoustic shadows create unusual sound doldrums, but that does not usually happen in line of sight situations. So, bottom line, blocks do not seem to represent for me the kind of chaos that did occur during an ancient tactical battle. That does not mean that I am right, just that my reading of the sources and some basic logic does not lead me to that conclusion. The kinds of chaos that does occur is confused orders, key people getting killed by a missile weapon that shakes a unit, etc. But in the end the block mechanic, while fun does not work for me at the tactical level. Just my view.
My biggest problem with blocks is more mechanical and production oriented. First off I am not a big fan of some assembly required. Not a big deal and I applaud GMT and any other company that gives two sets of labels as I am a klutz with getting them on straight. I also do not like that once a unit loses some strength the unit designation etc., is no longer upright. No big thing, but I do not like the aesthetic. Lastly, I play games mostly solo, so the entire hidden intelligence thing is wasted on me 99% of the time. Not a good or a bad thing, but a lifestyle issue.
Intelligence and who knows what when is critical to understand the circumstances of a particular battle. To handle intelligence interactions I prefer cards and other mechanisms. I also use various mechanics such as in Empire of the Sun, whereby you have a basic idea where units are located, but at the moment of contact that information may not be what you thought due to intelligence failure. It seems more powerful and effective from my perspective. Again that is a design preference not an established fact.
Anyway that is how I see it.