Wargame SITREP 230323 N7 Design – Learning “By the Rules” in Carrier Battle: Philippine Sea (Compass Games, 2023)

In a previous post about Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet 1939-1942 (Jeremy White, GMT Games, 2021) I discussed my take on the programmed learning approach used in that game. Bottom Line: I took the game to task for having a very drawn out programmed learning system. I am now revisiting that very issue with Carrier Battle: Philippine Sea (Jon Southard, Compass Games, 2023). Carrier Battle uses a programmed learning approach that, like Atlantic Chase, requires a significant investment of time into learning the game before the full game can be played. More important, however, may be the conceptual arrangement—or structure—of the rules. Southard notes that Carrier Battle requires a different arrangement of rules: “While programmed instruction is great for learning, it does mean the rules must be organized in order of teaching and not in order of the sequence of play” (Rule Book, 1.2). In the case of Carrier Battle, the structured learning approach does an excellent job teaching what in many ways is a complicated game.

Carrier Battle rule and play books

Structured learning

When writing about Atlantic Chase I took some exception to the “build up” learning process needed to play the game:

The net result of this very hands-on programmed approach in Atlantic Chase of playing each of the ten episodes (the last one being a “culmination” episode bringing all the previous Concepts/Actions together) means that learning the game takes some real time. While some of the early episodes are quick and easy, as you get to later episodes (and especially the culmination episode) each takes more time. For a “Salty Grognard” like me the 10 episodes of reading, playing, and internalizing the Concepts/Actions took several hours to complete; for a Newbie there is likely even more time required. So be warned—learning Atlantic Chase is not something that happens in a single sitting.

#Wargame Wednesday – Chasing the elusive in Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020), Apr 18, 2021
Atlantic Chase (note rule book in lower right)

To be fair, designer Jon Southard warns of this time investment to play Carrier Battle in Rule 1.2 HOW TO LEARN THE GAME. When doing so he emphasizes the structure of the rules:

The rules to Carrier Battle: Philippine Sea are lengthy, but they have been structured to assist you in learning them. We strongly recommend you begin by reading rules in section 2 [Game Equipment] and section 3 [Sequence of Play] and then read the Comprehensive Example of Play, which appears in the the Play Book. This will give you a good idea of how the game works, providing context for understanding the actual rules.

Carrier Battle, 1.2

The rule book for Carrier Battle is 60 pages and divides the rules for the game into 24 major sections. Nine scenarios are also provided with five “Introductory,” two “Standard,” and two “Advanced” scenarios. Rule sections 16-24 are Advanced Rules which “provide additional simulation detail, additional tactical and strategic considerations, game variations, or more challenge.” They are recommended only for use from Scenario 6 onward.

The programmed learning points for Carrier Battle are found where “Don’t Get Waved Off” text is inserted in the rules. Those recommended “wave off” points are tied to specific scenarios:

Intro Scenario 1. Rules 1.0 Introduction, 2.0 Game Equipment, 3.0 Sequence of Play, and 4.0 US Air Missions.

Intro Scenario 2. Add rule 5.0 Air/Sea Combat.

Intro Scenario 3. Add rule 6.0 Task Groups and Carrier Operations.

Intro Scenario 4. Add rule 7.0 Japanese Forces and 8.0 Detection and Search.

Intro Scenario 5. Add rule 9.0 Japanese Carrier Forces and 10.0 Japanese Air Raids.

Standard Scenario 6 & 7. Add rule 11.0 Japanese Land-Based Air, 12.0 Damage, Fire, and Crippled Ships, 13.0 Commitment, 14.0 Submarines, and 15.0 Victory Conditions.

Roger ball!

Southard intentionally arranged the rules and scenarios of Carrier Battle in this manner with several goals in mind. As he writes in section 1.2, “Scenarios 1 through 5 each introduce a new portion of the full rules set as well as a specific part of the actual battle. Thus, in addition to teaching the rules, these scenarios serve as an introduction to the history of the battle.” He then discusses the later scenarios with these comments:

Scenarios 6 through 9, also in the Play Book, are the full game. The Comprehensive Example illustrates the opening moves of Scenario 6. Scenarios 7 through 9 present different possible battle situations, but are no more difficult then Scenario 6. The main rules indicate the point at which you are ready to play these full scenarios.

For later variations or increased challenge and realism, most scenarios include some variations to set up, scenario rules, etc. When you are ready, you can also use any of the Advanced Rules you wish (sections 16.0 and after). These are not necessary to enjoy the game (although some are recommended), but they will extend your enjoyment once you have learned the standard rules.

Carrier Battle, 1.2

Structured accessibility

Recently, I took exception with some calls for more accessibility in wargames, specifically a call to “rewrite” the book how to write wargame rules. One complaint I responded to regarded wargame rule books and how they are written. As the complainant wrote, “It might be how we write rulebooks for wargames. Less car manual-style, moving away from referring to the player in the third person.” 

Carrier Battle, using the classic SPI case notation system (e.g., 1.0, 1.1, 1.11), will always look like a car manual. The complexity of the rules, with the many interactions, demands an easy-to-reference system. Not using case notation for these rules would be like trying to navigate using a map without a reference system. One can maybe find their way, but it is much easier to have a reference system to assist.

Southard makes the conscientious decision in Carrier Battle to structure the rules in the order of teaching. The structure he adopts in Carrier Battle is not to use the sequence of play. This rules structure requires some additional mental gymnastics on the part of players who much take what they learn and apply it in a different order than initially presented.

Southard’s rules structure in Carrier Battles—order of teaching—is the very opposite of the structure in another naval carrier battle wargame that I recently acquired. Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific (Ginichiro Suzuki, Vuca Simulations, 2023) uses a programmed learning approach for its scenarios. The scenarios each introduce game concepts that are spread throughout the rule book. After playing the last Tutorial Scenario of Task Force I commented that:

  • I wish the rule book was a bit better organized.
  • I like the tutorial learning approach but again I wish the rule book organization was more reflective of the programmed learning method it tries to deliver.

In effect, Carrier Battle uses the structured learning approach I was looking for in Task Force.

Inevitably, the question will become, “Which approach is better?” As in so many cases, I’m afraid it comes down to “it depends.” In Carrier Battle, where players have to manipulate a rich game system, the process requires a degree of specificity that some might balk at. Southard understands Carrier Battle is trying to depict a complex situation and sometime the rules have a difficult time explaining the concepts.

Carrier Battle forum thread on BoardGameGeek

Accessible complexity

I argue that the best structure of the rules used in any wargame ultimately depends on the complexity of the game. Advocates of “accessible” wargames strongly imply that for a game to be more accessible it must have rules written in a more conversational style. Some might even be tempted to point to Atlantic Chase as an example of what Carrier Battle should emulate. I would advise caution, if for no other reason than the very complexity of Carrier Battle. Atlantic Chase is a far simpler game with regards to the game mechanisms involved. As I wrote in April 2021, “While the package of Atlantic Fleet is in many ways innovative and could be an example of the future for wargame rules writing, the system itself has one major feature (hidden information in the open) that it executes extremely well but otherwise it is actually a quite narrowly focused wargame.”

What is complexity? When I talk about complexity I am talking about the six types of game complexity (Spatial, Arithmetical, Zone, Planning, Rules/Mechanical, and Component) as discussed by the Ludology Podcast #238 in 2020. For a fuller discussion of complexity in wargames please see my post “@LudologyPod on #Wargame Complexity – Really?” from Nov 21, 2020).

Wargames with relatively lower complexity, like Atlantic Chase, can get away with a rules structure focused on a step-by-step introduction of game concepts written in a very conversational tone. A wargame like Carrier Battle, with much higher demands on the solo player to manipulate the game, is better off with a programmed learning approach structured around learning order over than a sequence of play. Better yet, it needs to use a more structured format, such as the SPI case notation, to assist learning.

Does that make the game more accessible? Empirical data for that answer is impossible to find as the answer is individually subjective. In an effort, however, to move towards something of an answer I invite you to look at the Carrier Battle forums at BoardGameGeek. As I write this post, there are 117 threads in the forum with 59 that identify themselves as “Rules” questions. That works our to be ~50% of all threads. Compare that (loosely) to Atlantic Chase which has 604 threads of which 353 (~58%) identify as a rules question. For a game that is supposedly so much more accessible why does Atlantic Chase have proportionally more question threads? The bottom line is that advocates of conversational Atlantic Chase programmed learning rules can’t point to any evidence they make it more accessible. Conversely, it’s tempting to say that the SPI case notation format for rules combined with programmed learning makes more complex wargames easier to understand, judging from the percentage of rules questions, but like I already said it isn’t that simple.

Which makes me wonder if it is the rules structures that critics of wargames want changed, or do they really want the hobby to move towards games of lesser complexity? That’s another discussion…

Feature image courtesy RMN

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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