Coronatine Comments – Random #Wargame & #Boardgame Shoutouts to @ADragoons, @Bublublock, & @tomandmary with mentions of @compassgamesllc, @StrongholdGames & @hollandspiele

Rule Books

DragoonsLogoHEADER-2-1RECENTLY, THE GENTLEMEN AT ARMCHAIRDRAGOONS WERE KIND ENOUGH TO POST A REVIEW I WROTE. My major knock on the game is that, “play is unfortunately marred by a rule book that makes learning the game harder than it should.”

In the case of Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) a better rule book has:

  • An index
  • Deeper numbering of paragraphs to ease cross-reference
  • Consistency in terms & language

A rule book needs to be governed by a style guide. I won’t tell you what to use, but when you don’t it’s really noticeable! There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is not a magical wargame rule book template that an aspiring (or well-established) designer can just download from the internet. What is needed is not a format as much as an attitude.

Complexity

IMG_0574In a Twitter reply to my Armchair Dragoons article, Dan Bullock (@Bublublock) said, “Every time I see BWN referred to as medium complexity, I feel marvelously stupid.” Indeed, an underlying theme of my post this week, Hard Core #Wargame? Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983) is complexity as how each individual sees it. In the case of Blue Water Navy a great deal of the complexity is learning complexity from the less-than-stellar written rules. In Assault for the mystery reviewer I talk about it appears mechanical complexity, i.e. using the game components, was far too complex for them. I feel a longer think-piece coming…but it’s not quite fully formed yet.

Name Games -or- BGG Don’t Fail Me Now!

Picked up on a small thread on BoardGameGeek about BGG renaming wargame titles. You know, like taking the last two games I discussed on my blog, Assault and Dawn of Empire, and making sure the database names are Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 and Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War in the Atlantic, 1898. Personally it doesn’t bother me as I clearly see a subtitle as part of the title. Apparently I am too simple, because the BGG policy appears to not only incorporate subtitles, but also any box cover description. Taken to the extreme, games like Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games becomes either:

  • “Terraforming Mars: Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World” or
  • “Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World: Terraforming Mars”.

Yes, leave it to the hobby boardgame community on BGG to make this an issue. Well, if this is the new policy I can’t wait to see the update for Supply Lines of the American Revolution – The Northern Theater, 1775-1777: being a Game of War, or Logistics & Deception; & a suitable & commendable past-time for gentlemen & ladies both; invented by Mr. Tom Russell, a Patriot born in these United States with cartographical embellishment by Ania B. Ziolkowska. I mean, it’s about time Tom and Mary Russell (@tomandmary) of Hollandspiele got recognition for this fine work!

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Courtesy Hollandspiele

Feature image courtesy pinterest.com

Hard Core #Wargame? Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983)

WITH ALL THE CORONATINE TIME AVAILABLE, I HAVE BEEN REACHING DEEP INTO MY WARGAME COLLECTION TO REPLAY OLDER TITLES. This week I put Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983) on the table. According to the box back:

Assault is a tactical level game of armor and infantry combat in the near future. Each hex of the two geomorphic maps covers 250 meters of actual terrain and each turn represents only a few minutes. Each counter represents a section or platoon-sized unit. The unit counters allow representation of everything from company meeting engagements to a full regiment/brigade assault. The rules cover all aspects of modern equipment, but stress flexibility, initiative, and command control.

Indeed, Command Control is really the heart of this Frank Chadwick design. As Mr. Chadwick writes in the eight-page briefing that thoughtfully accompanies the game:

Command Control: The command control system is designed to present the players with the capabilities or limitations that attend the different command control systems in use without bogging them down in the minutiae of detailed staff work. The use of operations points is, admittedly, an abstraction, particularly when TOC planning is used, but one that seems to work fairly well. The accumulation of operations points through TOC planning represents more than just a few staff officers looking at maps and thinking things over; it also represents collating and analyzing intelligence data and disseminating it to line units, briefing line unit commanders on expected enemy resistance and possible alternate courses of action, and in general, a variety of staff functions that will enable a unit to respond more quickly when the shooting actually starts. [Comment – Nobody ever claimed Frank wrote in short sentences.]

One of my favorite wargames of 2019 was Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019). Less Than 60 Miles takes the concept of John Boyd’s OODA-Loop and makes it the center of the game. To do anything takes command and time. As I read the US Doctrine portion of the US Briefing in Assault, I was struck by these words from Mr. Chadwick written in the early 1980’s:

Given the more centralized command functions in the Soviet Army and the reliance on rehearsed battle drill, it was surmised that the decision/action cycle in Soviet units must, by necessity, be longer than in western units. An operation would cycle through one phase and, toward the end of it, start a new phase. If US units could break into that decision-making cycle at a critical point, limited command assets on the Soviet side would become overloaded and the operation would break down. It is around the concept of breaking into that decision/action cycle that US doctrine finally evolved.

Basically put, Assault is a very (then) contemporary attempt to portray the OODA-Loop on the battlefields of Europe. Personally, I think Mr. Chadwick’s design is a good one as it certainly meets his own design goal:

One advantage of the command control system in the game is that it enabled me to avoid writing straightjacket rules for the Soviet player to reflect correct doctrine. Given the relative number of HQ and TOC units available, Soviet doctrine comes naturally. Soviet units tend to move in formation in the attack. They will stay in column (march formation) as long as possible, switching to line only at the last minute to carry out an attack. All of these practices make sense for the Soviet player in game terms.

After I played my scenario I made the mistake of going to BGG and looking at the forums. Of the 39 threads there is one, just one, review. That review, written in 2011 is titled, “Assault: Only for the truly Hard Core.”

I made the mistake of reading it.

First, I’m not really sure what a ‘Hard Core’ wargamer is. Is is somebody who plays Advanced Squad Leader? Or maybe Star Fleet Battles? Is it someone who loves a game even though the rules are so complicated it’s seemingly impossible to play? Or does ‘Hard Core’ mean anybody who plays anything more complicated than, say, PanzerBlitz which this reviewer mentions more than once?

Maybe the reviewer was talking about the rules? Then again, maybe not. Assault comes with a 16-page double-column rule book. There are 24 major rule headings. Of the 24 rules (25 if you count the Introduction) two are Optional. To me, the rules come across as easy-to-read and understand and the game mechanics are not too onerous. So how could this be a game for only the “Hard Core?”

Specifically, the reviewer makes the claim, “The command and control rules are arduous and time consuming….This kind of bookkeeping was for the truly hardcore and you don’t see it in successful titles these days.”

A deeper reading of the review tells me that the reviewer actually didn’t like the game interfaces. The reviewer plainly tells us it’s not how the game is played, but how the game is presented that makes it difficult for him:

  • “…in Assault, one unit looks pretty much like another unit and those tiny unit IDs are tough to read. It is a major chore to keep track of your units under these circumstances, and significant amounts of game time are spent peering under your stacks and squinting at unit IDs.”
  • “…it takes more than a few minutes just to sort out our forces and get ready to set up. Then each player has some bookkeeping to do, filling out copies of the Command and Morale record for each HQ and TOC, and all of the units under their control.”

I agree that the tiny unit IDs in Assault are hard to read. The reviewer is right; different graphical approaches (colors, bands, etc.) would make distinguishing units easier. I also find it humorous that even in 2011, like today in 2020, people forget (ignore? are unaware?) what state-of-the-art publishing was in the 1980’s. I don’t think the folks at GDW purposely avoided making counters easier to distinguish; I’m just not sure they had the capability to print them.

Getting set up for a game of Assault can be challenging, especially if the counters are not organized. For Assault I tend to be a hyper-organizer with each battalion separated into their own baggie or compartment. If you don’t take this basic step then yes, set up time can become very extended.

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I will disagree on the bookkeeping for Assault. In my game the US side had five HQ. To determine Operations/Planning Points was five quick die rolls. Morale depends on the number of steps in a company; four or fewer steps is morale 8. five through 8 steps is morale 10, nine or more steps morale 12. Easy. The Soviet side with fewer HQs overall is just as easy (if not easier).

I will go a step further than the reviewer and add that turning units over when in March formation slows game play in Assault. I would much rather have seen the use of an information marker placed atop the unit or stack. As it was, the game already came with two sheets (480 counters) so maybe a third was cost-prohibitive.

But what about the Command Control rules themselves? What the reviewer intends as a criticism of Assault comes across as more of a strength to me:

Operations Points are one of the central element of the Assault command and control system. As a concept it is pretty simple, certain actions take command points to perform. Run out of points and you can’t take those actions. Not bad so far, eh? As long as you are careful with your units, plan ahead, and don’t try to do everything at once, things should go smoothly enough. But not every HQ/TOC has the same number of command points available, so some units (and by units, in this case, I mean Companies and Battalions) will be more effective than others.

“As long as you are careful with your units, plan ahead, and don’t try to do everything at once….some units…will be more effective than others.” That is the design effect of the Command Control rules and that is why Assault is a very interesting game.

The Assault scenario I played was Scenario 1: Probe. Here a US screening and blocking force is covering a gap between major units. One very nice element of these scenarios is multiple force levels available which makes for always different match ups. In my battle a US armored battalion with a cross-attached mechanized infantry company defended against a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion supported by a reconnaissance company, an attached battery of artillery, and eventually a tank battalion. The Soviets have 18 turns (1.5 hours) to cross the map (16 km). This is harder than it seems given that the first two Soviet HQ do not enter the map until Turns 5 and 7. If the Americans can get in amongst the Soviets early they can disrupt them and dramatically slow their advance across the map. On the other hand, the longer the Soviets can keep in March Formation and get across the map the closer they will be to victory. The entire battle hinges on the Command Control rules.

 

The reviewer sums up the game review with these comments:

This is a difficult game, no doubt, the learning curve is steep. This is a game that you plan to play all afternoon or evening, 2-4 hours from pulling out the box to packing it up again – even for a small scenario. But once you’ve played it a few times, and gotten past the fact that not only are you the battalion commander but also every squad leader, cannon cocker, and tank commander wondering which shell to load for the next shot, you will have a much better understanding of what it takes to get an armored battalion into the fight, in near contemporary conditions. This is a good game, but I don’t expect to see its like again.

Let me break this down:

  • “…the learning curve is steep.” Is it the rules or the game interface that is difficult? Sure, clumsy interfaces make for a difficult game but are you telling me that a small font makes a game for hard core only?
  • “This is a game you play all afternoon or evening, 2-4 hours….” The back of the box states, “2-4 hours per scenario.” If one is organized set up will go faster….
  • “…gotten past the fact that not only are you the battalion commander but….” Yes, there are choices in the game, but also realize that Rule 22 Ammunition Supply is an Optional rule. I remember playing this game in the 1980s using Note Cards. I also remember when we felt so smart using erasable markers on sheet protectors. Today a simple spreadsheet program suffices, and if I had some coding skills I don’t think an app would be too hard either.
  • “…you will have a much better understanding….” Is that not the point of this game; indeed, of most any wargame? I also believe a better understanding does not equate to ‘having it easy.’
  • “…but I don’t expect to see the likes of it again.” Welcome to 2020 and games like Less Than 60 Miles or 1985: Under an Iron Sky (Thin Red Line games, 2018) or even something like World at War 85: Storming the Gap (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2019). World War III in the 1980’s is back in vogue.

As much as I disagree with the reviewer, I will thank them for making me think about why a game works for me or not. To start with, we both obviously have a very different opinion as to what a ‘hard core’ wargame is. I also now more fully realize the impact game interfaces have even in the classic hex & counter wargame media. Overall, for me all those reviewer comments do not make Assault a game for the ‘Hard Core.’ That said, the reviewer is right in that game component interface could be better – but that alone does not make the game unapproachable for the non ‘hard core.’

Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.

Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):

War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)

The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.

On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level

As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:

Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)

There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.

Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:

This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).

All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)

I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).

So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:

…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)

Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.