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.

Relooking at an older Train (war)game

I AM ASHAMED. Ashamed to admit that I have only one game by designer Brian Train in my collection. Mr. Train is a very prolific designer, having published games and/or historical articles with BTR Games, Compass Games, Decision Games, Fiery Dragon Productions, Flying Pig Games, GMT Games, Hollandspiele, Lock n’ Load, Microgame Design Group, Modern Combat Studies Group, Nestorgames, One Small Step Games, Schutze Games, Simulations Workshop, Strategy Gaming Society, Steambubble Graphics, Tiny Battle Publishing and XTR Corp. He often focuses on irregular warfare, “pol-mil” games, and asymmetric games (his webpage is here). I recently played a Brian Train game and was very impressed by the narrative it created.

The one Brian Train game I have in my collection is Reichswehr & Freikorps: If the Red Army Invaded Germany, 1920 (Strategy & Tactics 273, Mar-Apr 2012, Decision Games).  When I first got this game in 2012 I didn’t like it. This weekend, I pulled it off the shelf, set it up, and played. I was curious to see if I had missed something.

In 2012 I was very much a simulationist wargamer; that is, a wargamer deeply focused on the hardware. Hence my love for games like the Admiralty Trilogy-series from Admiralty Trilogy Games, the Panzer-series from GMT Games, or the Fighting Wings-series from J.D. WebsterRWFK is none of that. RWFK is, “a low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that would’ve resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Red Army in the summer of 1920.”

I am not the wargamer I was in 2012. Indeed, I am not the gamer I was in 2012. These days I play many boardgames (non-wargames) as well as wargames. One consequence of playing a wider variety of games is that I have grown to appreciate game mechanics like I never did before. An appreciation of mechanics has, in turn, allowed me to see many more games as “narratives” that teach me much as I explore them.

When I first looked at RWFK in 2012, the “low-complexity” and abstractions made in the game (Railhead Markers? With no railroads?) turned me off.  Playing it this weekend I discovered a game that is a actually a tense race-against-the-clock with a neat mechanic to model decreasing Red Army effectiveness. The game neatly creates a narrative of a large, cumbersome Red Army trying to suppress the smaller, more agile German forces before time runs out.

Looking at the map, the first thing one sees is a big map apparently with low counter density. The map is 17×24 hexes for 176 counters of which only around 125 are actually units. I can still remember in 2012 being fixated on the stacking rule which allows the Germans to stack up to seven (7) divisions in each hex (8.4 German Stacking Limit). The Red Army gets to stack all units from the same army in a hex (8.5 Red Army Stacking Limit). I seem to remember my 2012 game as a series of large stacks blowing across the map and the war quickly ending with the Red Army capturing Berlin. I put the game away and rated it a mere 5.5 (little better than Mediocre – Take It or Leave It) on BoardGameGeek.

In 2018, I now see I did not give enough consideration to rules 4.0 HOW TO WIN & RED ARMY MORALE, 5.0 THE TURN SEQUENCE, and 7.0 SUPPLY & GERMAN RAILROAD MOVEMENT.

As 4.1 On to Berlin states, “The Red Army player is generally on the offensive during the game, attempting to run a campaign that will, ideally, culminate with his force’s entry into Berlin.” This ties neatly with 4.4 Winning & Losing on Victory Points which states, “In general, the player who has managed to accumulate the greatest number of victory points…is declared the winner.” Rules 4.2 City & Town Hex Control and 4.3 Red Army Southern Front Reinforcements both describe how VP are gained and lost. These rules are very straight-forward and very much what my simulationist grognard mind expects.

The rule I didn’t give enough consideration to before is 4.7 Red Army Morale. This rules is actually a “core mechanic” of the game – maybe even the most important rule. Red Army Morale (RAM) can be High, normal, or Low. When the RAM is High, all combats (offensive & defensive) gain a one-column shift in the Red Army favor. Movement factors are also increased. Conversely, when the RAM is Low, all combats suffer a one-column shift against the Red Army, and movement factors are decreased. If the RAM ever drops below zero, the Red Army is said to have “collapsed” and the German player automatically wins (4.8 Ram Collapse).

RAM is automatically reduced by 2 at the beginning of every turn. RAM is gained or lost based on the capture of Towns & Cities, as well as from the arrival or defeat of various Red Army formations. In order to maintain effectiveness, the Red Army player must go on the offensive and stay there. If the German player can stymie his actions, the Red Army will quickly lose morale and combat effectiveness. This is a neat built-in timer to pressure the Red Army player to act. In effect, RAM acts as the “game clock” in a manner possibly more effective than the Turn Record Track.

Rule 5.2 Game Turns & Player Turn Procedures is the second leg of the core mechanic. After the 5.4 Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase conducted by both players, the game proceeds to II. Red Army Player Turn. Using a chit-pull, different Red Army Fronts are activated to conduct a Reinforcement & Movement Phase followed by a Combat Phase. At any point during a Reinforcement & Movement Phase or Combat Phase, the German player can interrupt the Red Army player and conduct his own Railroad Movement, Regular Movement, or Combat Phase. The German player only gets one of each phase in every Red Army turn so the challenge is to decide when (and in what order) the phases should be played. This mechanic neatly shows a superior German command & control ability as well as avoids an IGO-UGO turn sequence. It makes the chit-pull agonizing for the Red Army (I really need to get the Southwest Front moving!) while forcing the German player to carefully determine when is the best time in the Red Army turn to interrupt and take his action (Gotta go now before they move away!).

The third leg of game is the supply rules. 7.4 Tracing Supply Lines details what a supply line is with the most important factor being it cannot be longer than eight hexes in length. The supply line uses a mix of railhead supply sources and “ultimate” supply source hexes. The rule ties neatly with 5.4 The Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase in which each player can place one (and only one) railhead marker in any one city or town they control that does not presently have a marker. Units don’t want to fight when out of supply (OOS) because when they are OOS movement and combat factors are halved! (7.6 Effect of Being OOS).

The combined impact of these three core mechanics is that the Red Army MUST attack while the German player has more flexibility in his campaign. The Red Army is also in a race to win before they lose combat effectiveness as symbolized by their RAM. Finally, in order to stay on that offensive, the Red Army must build supply lines deep into enemy territory. To build supply lines takes time; time the Red Army has precious little of.

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Example of near mid-game situation

But what about those stacking rules? One certainly can have large stacks race around the board, but to do so means few VP gained (to offset automatically dropping RAM) and a tenuous supply line at best. Better to spread the armies out, take more cities and towns, and build a supply net to support troops forward. The stacking rule is actually not that important as the game model encourages players to act in other ways!

In the end, RWFK is a very narrative game. Can the Red Army overcome with more units (but generally lower quality and losing effectiness over time) a smaller but more flexible German Army? To really enjoy RWFK one must embrace the abstractions. In 2012 as a simulationist wargamer I was not ready to embrace the narrative. These days I am, and I enjoy the narrative of games. My previous rating on BGG was too low and a result of a lack of appreciation for the game model. Both the rating and myself have changed. I enjoyed RWFK this weekend, and am going to seek out more games by Mr. Train. Publishers of Mr. Train’s work need to be ready because I feel a few purchases are in order!

Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com.

Wargame Wednesday – Reichswehr & Freikorps

S&T #273 Courtesy BGG

Strategy & Tactics magazine and games can be a hit-or-miss affair. The articles are generally well-written if not original (as in original conclusions though the topics may be more obscure). The games are usually limited in scope due to rules length, map size, and counter limits. They also are not necessarily cheap at $29.99 for the game edition (magazine + game). But I am a sucker for alternate history and a fan of Brian Train’s work. So when I saw that Train (master of asymmetric warfare simulations) had teamed with Ty Bomba (known for his alternate history games) I took the chance.

Reichswehr & Freikorps (RWFK) advertises itself as a “low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that likely would have resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Read Army late in the summer of 1920.” The Soviet player is invading Germany; the German player is defending his homeland.

S&T magazine games usually have a “gimmick” that each game tries to showcase. In this case, the gimmick is the Red Army Morale. With High Morale the Red Army can favorably shift combat odds and move further. Low Morale negatively shifts combat odds and reduces movement. Morale is gained by seizing towns and cities and holding them.

The Sequence of Play is also interesting. The Soviet player has two fronts but can only move one front at a time. The German player has no set sequence of play but rather can “interrupt” the Soviet players turn three times to conduct rail movement, regular movement, or combat.

After setting up the game, I was rather dubious as to the coming experience. The 22″x34″ map is overlaid with a 16×24 hex grid. Though there are 176 counters, nearly half are markers meaning there are only around 100 combat units of which 1/4 are reinforcements. Taken together with the stacking rules which allow the Germans to put seven divisions in a stack or the Soviets to have all the units of the same army together I ended up with a few stacks and many empty hexes.

The first few turns see a nearly unstoppable Red Army juggernaut rolling over the countryside to take towns and cities. It is not until a few turns in that one realizes the impact of supply lines on the Red Army advance. Though the Soviets may be able to seize many towns, they are only able to create one new railhead each turn. The effect here is to slow the Red Army advance. This in turn means a loss of Morale since morale is gained by taking towns and cities but lost every turn over time.

In the end, the game sets out to do what it was designed to do; the Red Army player must keep up an offensive while dealing with a slow supply chain and gradually reduced morale. To be victorious the Red Army needs to stay ahead of that inevitable decline in morale. Reichswehr & Freikorps delivers on this gimmick, though I don’t see to much replay value here.