Topic: Wargame Design Musings
Here is a link with some interesting questions and hopefully reasonable answers.
Here is a link with some interesting questions and hopefully reasonable answers.
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.
<Based on a long and now acrimonious thread on what is a CDG? I wrote this response>
I continue to note high levels of hostility over how one group wants to define something and another groups desire that this is anathema or somehow wrong. It is clear why war is part and parcel to the human experience.
When I designed WTP I was going for a strategic level political military wargame and that is what I produced. I used the GO mechanic as a metaphor for the political struggle that was part and parcel to representing the American Revolution. See my articles in c3i and ATO on this topic. I stand by my description in my Washington's War design notes on what I think a CDG is and I am happy for others to have their definition. I was not designing a CDG or a card driven game, I was designing and publishing an American Revolution wargame, which I have successfully accomplished over forty times. The game had many fans, although I would note that the design never won any awards. But it did generate a new interest in competitive play amongst wargamers that was formerly not a critical element in the culture.
When WTP came out I was approached by several gamers who are patent attorneys. They wanted to help me patent the concept. With several patents pending I was aware of the process and chose consciously not to pursue this option. Whether the patent office would or would not have agreed will never be known, but at the time, veteran wargamers and more importantly wargame designers saw WTP as a new design concept. Peer review from the likes of CV, Mark Simonitch, and Ted Raicer to name a few is what created the genre.
Mark Simonitch in Hannibal and Ted Raicer in Paths of Glory both acknowledge in their credits and design notes borrowing many of their primary systems from We The People. They did not have to do that but as they are quality individuals and very talented designers this had a powerful influence on opinion. I would also note that both games are much more popular than We The People according to the BGG ratings and the opinion of about everyone I know in wargaming. I then brought out For The People, the fourth in the group, and somewhere amongst all of this the term CDG was coined and it stuck. Was it the perfect term, seemed to work for the last fifteen years or so, and since people who buy CDGs wanted to buy more of them the game companies branded as many games with the term as they seemed to boost sales.
Why are CDGs popular with many wargamers? One aspect is they seem to generate a great deal of enthusiasm for competitive play. Consequently play balance in CDGs is an important feature. But what is a CDG that makes them unique? Basically they borrow heavily from the We The People design. What are those features? If you have not played WTP or any of the other CDGs then this can be argued to death, which is what has been happening. So my advice is try playing one before you tell those of us who are immersed in them what they are or are not.
CDGs continue to evolve as noted by me in my Washington's War design notes. We The People does not have the common feature that keeps getting put forward as a unique CDG feature, the card choice of ops or event. We The People had this concept based on a hand of cards, but not around each card. That innovation occurred in Hannibal and was a Mark Simonitch improvement. When I did Washington's War I chose to keep the original concept for the reasons I articulated in my design notes and a nod here to Unhappy King Charles for being the closest of the CDGs to the original concept and why it is my favorite of the recent CDG offerings.
The main division in CDGs these days is between the one deck unscripted designs (WTP, FTP, WWR, Hannibal) and the scripted two deck temporally segmented concept (a PoG innovation ala Twilight Struggle, Shifting Sands, BtB, Stalin's War, UKC). Only WTP and Hannibal used the strong GO mechanic whereas the others morphed into using control for supply and territory control icons. What is clear is the wargame community sees a clear genre of games that are recognizable as a group whatever you call them. Literally parsing the term CDG is kind of useless as it is a symbolic term that is based on a collective group agreement. You don't agree then you do not have to, but it is a branded term that works for the publishers and the buyers. The main distinction in my mind is the designers of these games and others in the CDG family claimed they were related to We The People and consequently all branches and sequels thereafter carry the same label. I had nothing to do with their decisions or their professional courtesy in acknowledging the design heritage, but it is hard to argue with.
Those are the facts as I experienced them and I am very happy the way things have evolved as I now have lots of CDGs to play that continue to bring new innovations to the hobby. For the record my CDG of choice is Empire of the Sun and it has only a modest relationship to my original WTP design. I suspect that as CV opined with a few more nudges a new genre will break off and coin a new term that everyone will argue about.
I would like to take a very different tack on what makes a good historical simulation. Don has picked up on the physics side very well, which is very amenable to calculations and data. I would like to say that all of that is necessary but whoefully insufficient.
Decisionsmakers, in this case Lincoln and Davis' and their constituents perception of their physical reality is the dominant variable. What is perceived to be true is in fact true, regardless of the facts until changed by those facts. The reason is that decisions are based on perceived reality not physical reality (the two notions can converge, but the perceived reality always wins). For example how I treated DCs vulnerability in FTP makes this point. Lincoln thought it was vulnerable, but if the game system, as calculated by how the simulation treats the DC defenses, says that it is not vulnerable (and in retrospect it wasn't that vulnerable) then the players are given the luxury of ignoring a key historical cogniative variable. As the Eastern campaign was dominanated by this perception how can leaving it out make for a better historical simulation?
Going to Taylor's point about friction. FTP deals with the activation of leaders using a friction model. Each leader's initiative can be thought of as an amount of standing friction that must be overcome to begin movement. The three rated leaders are harder to move than the one rated leaders because the card deck is not entirely composed of three OC cards. That relationship as represented by card probability and leader rating is a statement of standing friction.
What the leader rating represents is how willing the leader in question was in taking risk, particularly as regards to their logistic preparation. The same real world physics pertained to a McClellan as it did to a Grant. What I mean by that is the needs of a Western soldier were not different than an Eastern soldier, a horse eats what a horse eats etc. (I am a huge fan of Van Creveld's book, even met and talked with him once). However, Grant's perception of what was possible (ability to forage in the deep South) was very different than McClellan's view. A strictly physical simulation, which account for all of the ones used in the DoD (with the exception of mine, search for Entropy Based Warfare) make no allowance for cogniative differences.
The question I would ask how good can a simulation be if it ignores cogniative factors such as the ones I mention (e.g., DC)?
PS: I broadly agree with Dockter on his point about the enduring value of personality in modern times, but I would note that the rise of the general staff system (just beginning in the ACW period) tends to mitigate the impact of one person on a very large organization. I would say that the impact of a modern leader on an organization is he sets the tone (how aggressive, how spit and polish) which in the aggregate does impact performance, but less so than a Lee sitting on Traveler during a battle. A political struggle due to its very nature, such as Dockter's excellent Triumph of Chaos, tends to elevate the importance of personal leadership as these personages ability to instill purpose into an ideological struggle is critical to its outcome. Witness the current struggle between America and Fundamentalism, its hard to say that icons do not matter in the 21st century.
Where did you look? It has a large number of fans which is not the same thing.
So, is the point that fans do not know what "good" is and only know what they like. Interesting perspective...
Indeed, a classic war between populares and optimates (or so they like to believe).
Are these mutually exclusive sets or do they intersect?
There is a school of thought that the whole Impulse, Trumping, Momentum mechanic is a gamey mechanic that has nothing to do with the reality of what happened on the ground
I have always been amused by the 'gamey' criticism as all rules are 'gamey' by definition, but I understand what is meant. I'll be the first to admit that any game system is not perfect. I also know that a good game has to take a focus. A literal interpretation of the GBOH command system was never intended. In fact the system would work for any tactical system as what it is trying to portray is a deep abstraction and independent of era.
What was in my mind was to create an interactive sequence of play that acted as an extension of the player, through his leaders, to seize and dominate the timing of a battle. In the abstract the two players are trying to time their blows in such a manner as to win the battle. This historical perspective that I am taking in this system is there is a cognitive battle going on as to when you maneuver your various force elements. The superior general controls the tempo of the battle to his advantage. Taking the system literally misses the entire point.
The reason that you go from lowest to highest leader is it forces the poorer led force to show their tactical plan first and give the better leaders the ability to move in relation to their opponents plan whenever they see the time is ripe to do so. The superior generals, ala Alexander, can basically move whenever they want (first, second, last whenever). It allows a player to create complicated sequences of moves where the superior led force tends to gain the tempo and initiative advantage. Of course the dice love no one and there is always a small element of surprise (captures a host of friction of war types of events) that can waylay even the best plans.
As far as the momentum concept goes. How active an element is when it does get going? How well does the leader keep his forces under control? How a player answers these questions through his actions (as represented by dice versus leader capability) deterimines the extent of how effective a given maneuver can be. So a Companion cavalry charge under Alexander can sweep all before it, whereas a lesser light will have difficulties maintaining control and alignment forcing a slower pace and effect of a move. I have seen the criticism that forces once set in motion did not stop etc. However, I designed the entire GBOH system around the idea of relative motion. A force that misses a move is not actually stopped, but its relative motion to the other elements around it is much slower. It is an example of how one can treat time-space relationships in a design without a lot of rules. If one sees the world through a literal lens this is very unsatisfying and there is no way to convince someone with that view otherwise. But the idea that I designed this system to represent what the crtiques state it represents is just incorrect.
The line commands allow the system to give an army some basic capabilities relative to their doctrine, e.g., Roman, whereby any political hack can make a Legion do some basic stuff, but if the battle gets away from them, they have a limited set of options to react.
As I said, no game system is perfect. The GBOH command system is an abstract concept and by definition "gamey" as it is a game that in the aggregate captures the choreography of an ancient battle. It gives advantage to the side with the historically better leaders, but with the opportunity for the player to demonstrate superior gaming skills.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to throw down some thoughts on what I was trying to do when I designed it this way. I'm sure there are much better Igo-Hugo systems or impulse systems that capture some of these elements in a more palatable manner for some. The notion that popular equates to low brow is a concept that I cannot support, I will leave it to others to make their case on why so many people for over 15 years can be so wrong.
PS: It would be nice if we can agree up front that neither side will persuade the other that they are right and avoid the part of these discussions where it has to get personal before the discussion can end. I like to think that honest men can disagree.
One of the things that I have learned about game design is that you cannot leave an open ended mechanic without a finite end. The impetus for the thought is that some players seem only interested in ignoring the fact that they are playing an historical game and spend undue effort trying to find ways to distort the rules and frustrate their opponent. To what purpose is beyond me.
A good example of what I am talking about is in my old Pacific War design where I put in a mechanic for penalty time, so players could recover forces when they had made slight miscalculations in logistic planning. I tried to ensure that this couldn't be used to ones advantage by removing the offensive players ability to conduct combat in penalty time. This way if the player messed around, the reaction player could launch a short range attack and start killing things until the pain of losses forced the player to shut things down.
In works not only in theory, but in practice as I was once able to make an opponent (someone I did not know well at a convention) cry uncle when they tried to get cute with this tactic. What I would like to write is a rule that is called, sit down, play the game, and stop screwing around. As this is not enforceable, I have learned the lesson that all mechanics must have a enforced end even if there is a viable way around it, such as my solution in Pacific War. The reason being when there is no limit, its clear abuse frustrates most players spoiling a good time.
As I never received any physical keepsake this is the only record of the award, posted so I wouldn't forget.
Walter Luc Haas-Award
The Walter Luc Haas-Award, given by the GHS members in Germany to the best board wargame of 2005, was won by 2 games this time:
Empire of the Sun
Congratulations to the designers and to GMT!
What Was I Trying To Simulate?
There are many things that can be simulated in a game and no game that I am aware of handles all of the details of conflict at the same level of detail in a user entertaining manner. A good simulation is one that picks out the key variables with easy to implement systems that let the player(s) manipulate them within an historical context. Additionally, the historical outcome and decisions should in some manner be within the set of game outcomes. In the end all simulations are wrong, but some are useful and hopefully entertaining.
But first a story, way back in the late seventies when I was designing what became RDF I got a chance to play the game with Jim Dunnigan. At the conclusion of the game Jim said it was interesting, but it felt it played like panzer chess. The comment referred to the fact that each maneuver he made was matched by a similar maneuver on my part resulting in two armored firing lines. I redesigned the game, but the point of the story is most games allow for near perfect information with lots of detail on a variety of force and spatial factors ala chess.
My continuing study of warfare both for game design purposes and professionally have convinced me that real combat is chaos because senior decision makers lack perfect knowledge. This has been the case for all wars including recent ones where people got killed because the real information was absent or not believed. The more successful commanders were those who were able to succeed in this constant environment of imperfect information. Consequently I have come to the view that the most important variable to simulate in a wargame is uncertainty.
I have tackled this problem in a variety of systems. In Pacific War I used hidden die rolls that integrated uncertainty as to the enemy reaction based on the intelligence condition. My most successful system has been my card driven design as embodied in We The People and For The People and copied by POG, 30YW, WW to name a few. What the cards accomplish is to create enourmous uncertainty about what the enemy can accomplish and how one's decisions might be impacted by the range of enemy reactions. By incorporating this imperfect information overlay into the more traditional force, space, and time factors interesting things happen. In addtion the cards allowed me to bring a range of soft factors (e.g., politics) into the simulation, which has ever been the original purpose of most wars. More importantly it appears that the entertainment value and replayability of the games have also been enhanced.
What is a good simulation of conflict? Is it one that develops systems for tactical trees, but misses the strategic forest. I submit that my card driven system is my attempt to simulate decision maker uncertainty in an imperfect information environment. From where I stand a game that ignores this set of variables has a harder time proving its simulation bona fides. This last point is definately a minority view in our hobby.
It is interesting that there is a perception that there is a flood of WTP/FTP derivative wargames out there, but there are less than 10 by my last count in ten years. During this same period of time there have been at least several hundred traditional wargames published. I am hard pressed to understand how this niche set of games is causing such a furor.
Just one man's view,
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