#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives

The Regiment over at the Armchair Dragoons in their Mentioned in Dispatches podcast recently discussed, “Is Wargaming Dead? Or only mostly dead?” (Season 5, Episode 9). It’s a good discussion so I recommend you take the time to listen. At the end Brant asked for community discussion and feedback. As I wasn’t a guest I’m going to use this chance to give you another of my two-cents.

Wargames as Narratives

One part of the podcast I really enjoyed was the discussion of why different games are appealing. One guest offered that some games are more appealing because they are supported by a good story, or narrative. Players often enjoy these games as they build their own narrative story through play.

I started thinking about the connection between narrative and wargames and find it interesting. Listening again to the podcast, I think the guest are discussing how some games are more popular because they build a narrative that the players can immerse themselves in. The example used in the podcast is Battletech. In a game of Battletech, players command giant mechs marching across a future battlefield. In many ways, it is a very personal skirmish game of individual combatants. Battletech is also supported by a very rich canon of background that not only adds color to battles, but often times also helps explain why a confrontation may be occurring. The background often is used to justify certain victory conditions or rules. Players that read and ‘buy into’ the narrative of the Battletech universe are most likely to derive greater enjoyment when playing.

Not all wargames have this same rich background. Indeed, in the realm of historical conflict simulations, the background is often real history. How can wargame narratives help gamers to enjoy a game more?

Very broadly speaking, I think wargames get shortchanged in terms of narrative. Wargames have always told a story. The problem is not that the story is not there, the problem is connecting the story to the player.

Sometimes that story is historical; more often it is alternate history. But before I discuss alternate history, I want to explore how a good wargame narrative can educate, entertain, or inform.

To explore this topic I’m going to first consider two types of wargaming narratives, the Session Report or After Action Report (AAR) and the Story. I’ll then look at the (supposedly) new world of Fictional Intelligence (FICINT) before coming back to alternate history.

Session Reports and AARs – Dramatic?

I have a love/hate relationship with session and after action reports (AAR). All too often I find people use them to clinically report what happens in the war game; i.e. they focus on how the game mechanics play out. This method acts to educate the reader as to how the game operates or how enjoyable it is. To me, that format of a session report or AAR is not a true narrative. I want the game to tell me a story. Finding good examples of such wargame narratives is challenging, but few exist. Here is the one of the best wargame narratives I have ever come across:

Striker in Action: a Firefight

It’s the sort of ticket that you hate: a jerkwater tech 8 world where there hasn’t been a serious fight for forty years, a banana republic without enough money for a standing army, and now a real shooting war. And you’re in the middle of it, as a mercenary cadre for the militia that’s supposed to track down and drive out the other side’s mercenary strikers. It’s the sort of ticket that could get you killed.

You hired on because you were short of cash, needed a job, and know your business. So now you find yourself the commander of a platoon of militia in a sweep through woods tracking down a report of an enemy border incursion. Another platoon is off on your left, but too far away in the dense foliage to be much help in a firefight. In the event of serious trouble, your company’s reserve platoon will back you up; then again, in the event of serious trouble you doubt that your platoon will survive long.

There are forty-one men in your platoon, including yourself and your platoon sergeant. None of them, other than yourself, has ever heard a shot fired in anger, but two of the three squad leaders and your platoon sergeant have been in a long time and seem to know their jobs well. You deploy the platoon in a skirmish line to sweep through the woods on a two squad frontage. You keep them fairly close together, so that verbal orders can be passed down the line and men won’t straggle off. You put the two squad leaders at either end of the line and you walk a couple of meters behind the center. You leave your platoon sergeant with your least reliable squad as a small reserve force about fifty meters behind the line.

Suddenly there’s automatic weapons fire off on the right, the area covered by your first squad. You call the squad leader on your helmet radio to find out what he’s run into.

“Tiger One, this is Tiger Leader. What’s your status, over?” (Tigers: a good example of wishful thinking, you think to yourself.)

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger One. We’re catching some small caliber autofire from up ahead in the trees. I’ve got some men down here and a couple took off, but I think we’re keeping their heads down, over.”

“OK, Tiger One, hold on. I’m on my way. Tiger Leader to all Tigers. Code X-ray. Acknowledge, over.” You give a codeword you worked out with the squad leaders before moving out, meaning stop the advance and hold in place.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Two. Wilco, over.” That’s second squad on the left flank.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Four. Wilco, over.” That’s your platoon sergeant with the third squad in reserve.

Once the acknowledgements come in and you’re sure there’s been no screw-up, you begin making your way through the undergrowth toward the sound of gunfire. On the way, you make a brief situation report to the company commander on the company radio net.

“Ringleader, this is Tiger Leader. I have a couple hostiles on my right and I’m taking automatic weapons fire. Some casualties already. I’m going to sort things out over there now, over.”

“Roger, Tiger Leader. Do you need help, over?” Help? Probably, but what can Company do right now?

“Negative, Ringleader, but stay on the line. Out.” If you could see anything you could call for fire support from the company mortars that are set up about half a klick to the rear, but by the time you radioed them the fire coordinates, they put rounds near the target, and you adjusted the fire to where you wanted it, you could be commanding an ex-platoon. Or you could have the second squad pivot to the right in line and try to hit the ambush party in flank, but it would take time to explain to these militia men what you wanted them to do, what axis to move out on, what to do once they got where you wanted them, what to expect, probably when to breathe. That takes time, and all of a sudden time is what you don’t have.

Three men from first squad break through the undergrowth, heading for the rear. You yell at them to stop, but they vanish into the undergrowth almost as soon as you see them. You could follow them, stop them, and get them turned around with a quick pep talk, but you’ll probably do more good over on the line with your first squad leader.

“Tiger Four, this is Tiger Leader. Code Olympic. I say again, code Olympic.

Acknowledge, over.” This is the code word to your platoon sergeant to bring the reserve squad up on line. By now you’re thinking ahead, and the reserve squad’s firepower might be handy a little closer to the action, especially if it starts to spread.

Finally you get to first squad, just as the firing dies down. There are just four men remaining out of the thirteen in the squad: the squad leader and three of his troopers. Two men are down with minor wounds and the rest have become separated during the confusion of the firefight. There’s no sign of the hostile troops, and the first squad is visibly shaken. The enemy has withdrawn into the dense woods, and you’re left with the job of putting your platoon back into some sort of order.

You take the first squad in tow and head toward the original center of the platoon’s skirmish line. On the way, you find four of the missing men; after they stopped running, they just sat down and waited for someone to come along and tell them what to do. It figures. There’s no sign of the other three who ran off; they don’t answer a radio hail. Later they will no doubt claim they never heard you.

When you link up with your platoon sergeant and third squad, you give your NCOs a quick briefing on the new platoon formation. First squad goes into reserve with the platoon sergeant, third squad takes the right, second squad stays where it is. When everyone’s on line, you move out.

———————————-

The above action took place in a Striker game, and serves to illuminate the essential nature of the Striker system and how it differs from previous miniatures rules. When attempting to understand these differences, it will help to keep in mind that Striker, as a part of Traveller, has been designed to be, to some extent, a roleplaying game. Miniatures players may initially have difficulties coming to grips with the basic assumptions of Striker, perhaps more so than a role-playing gamer would.

The essential difference is that Striker addresses the problems of battlefield command and control more directly and emphatically than any other rules yet published; actions which would be commonplace in many other miniatures games simply cannot be done in Striker due to the constraints of the command and initiative rules.

Consider, for example, the short action described above. A platoon is moving through dense woods, two squads in line and one in reserve. The righthand squad blunders into an ambush, takes casualties, returns fire, and about two-thirds of the survivors (inexperienced militia) run away. So far, most miniatures rules will produce similar results. It is in the player’s reaction to this that Striker departs from the rest. With most rules systems, the player would begin to move the rest of his platoon in order to bring fire to bear on the ambushers. Assuming that they could reach the area in two turns, they would begin firing at the enemy in the third turn. A brief firefight would ensue, ending with the withdrawal of the ambushers. On about the fifth turn, the platoon would again be moving out, gradually taking up a new formation to compensate for the losses it had sustained. The emphasis is on the actions of the platoon.

In Striker, by contrast, the emphasis is on the actions of the platoon commander. The intent of the rules is to put the player in the role of a small unit commander and force him to think about what he would be doing with his time if he were actually present on the battlefield. Here is the action again from the platoon commander’s viewpoint, described in game terms and broken into 30-second Striker turns :

On turn 1, the enemy fired upon first squad. On turn 2, as first squad halted to return fire (an action within the abilities of the squad leader), the platoon commander gave a brief order to the remainder of the platoon to stop the advance; the chatter back and forth, with acknowledgements, took all his time in that turn. On turn 3 the officer began making his way toward the site of the firefight, receiving a situation report from first squad’s leader on the way. On turn 4, he was encountered by routing militiamen, and was forced to decide whether to rally them, bring up his reserves, call for support from the company mortars, or keep moving; he decided to move the reserves into the line, again a simple, previously agreed upon code. On turn 5 he reached the right flank squad, in time to find the ambushers gone. On turn 6 he personally led the remnants of first squad back toward the center of the line. On turn 7 he encountered the stragglers and, still moving, attached them to his retinue. He arrived back in his original position, followed by first squad, on turn 9, finding both his platoon sergeant and the second squad leader there. He held a short orders briefing to explain the new order of advance to the three NCOs, an unforeseen situation for which no ready-made code word existed, explaining to each of them their positions in the new line, their new objective, speed of the advance, and a place to rally in case of disaster. The briefing took four minutes in all, or 8 turns. Then, on turn 18, the squads moved to their new positions and on turn 19 the advance resumed. Total elapsed time, a little under ten minutes, or 19 turns instead of 5.

Striker, Book 1, Basic Rules, GDW, 1981

Wargame: The Story

Wargame narratives can also be used to entertain. This is not easy and takes more than a bit of effort. A prime example of wargame-turned-narrative is “The Dance of the Vampires.” The popular version of this story is found as chapter 20 of Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising. The chapter is the high point of the first act in the book and features a regimental-size Soviet Backfire bomber raid against a US-French carrier battle group.

There is a second version of the story – a very wargame one. Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario was written by Larry Bond and tells the story of the wargame behind Clancy’s chapter. As Mr. Bond explains:

Tom and I decided that the best way to explore the possibilities was by using Harpoon to game out an attack. This is not how “Dance of the Vampires” was written. We already knew how the chapter had to end. What we were seeking was a better understanding of what factors drove each side’s thinking. When all those untried systems were pitted against each other, how would they interact?

Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario (2nd Ed), p. 2

When one reads the scenario book Dance of the Vampires, it is easy to see how Clancy and Bond got to the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” in Red Storm Rising. When both are considered, it’s readily apparent how a good wargame narrative can contribute to the making of a good entertaining story.

While “Dance of the Vampires” is a great story based on a wargame, it is far from the only one. One of the most successful examples may be the Battletech series of novels. However, I have long preferred the narratives found in Captain’s Log, the house magazine of Amarillo Design Bureau supporting their Star Fleet Universe. What I consider one of the best examples of a story based on a wargame was found in the predecessor to Captain’s Log, the old Nexus magazine. The first “story” written in Nexus, “Behind the Glory of Heroes,” was published in 1983 and reprinted in Captain’s Log #13 in 1993. Here is the story of Petty Officer Kelly Wright, working E-Scan aboard a Federation Base Station that is attacked by Romulan warships.

It was a long time before the approaching warships uncloaked and became visible. Immediately three pairs of warp engines were captured by her E-Scan; one pair quite large and the other two only slightly smaller. Very quickly a fourth pair, much smaller pair, was picked up. Her computer estimated the three larger emissions were cruiser class engines and the fourth pair, the smallest ones, were destroyer-type engines. Very quickly the computer, in communication with the scanning network of the station, confirmed the approach of a KR Cruiser, two War Eagles, and a Klingon-type frigate, probably the KR5 that had been seen in this sector some weeks ago. She fed her information to gunnery.

Her professional detachment was shaken a bit when she picked up torpedoes heating in their tubes. But soon the starships would get here and drive them off. All they had to do was hang on a few minutes. It would be a tough fight, no doubt, but she was confident. When the base’s phaser warning light came blinked on her console, she shut her equipment off. The emissions of the phasers would blind her, and E-Scan wasn’t needed any more. Sensors One and Two would govern the weapons fire.

She sat back and felt the floor hum with the shots. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the warning light, poised to turn her equipment back on the moment the light went off.

She never actually felt the blow. She simply found herself on the floor stupidly thinking she should have strapped herself in as they do on the ships. The air was acrid with burning plastic and a putrid-sweet smell she didn’t recognize. She vaguely heard screams in the distance and a muffled bleating of something, but her ears felt as if something was pressuring them. Her eyes began to sting and water.

“Behind the Glory of Heroes,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 4

Like all the stories in Captain’s Log, the narrative is playable in one of the Star Fleet Universe games. Indeed, the editors of Captain’s Log would only publish stories that “followed” the rules of the universe (i.e. replicable without breaking game mechanics).

Another feature of Captain’s Log that I really enjoyed was the narrative found in “The Academy.”

One of the most popular features of Captain’s Log is the Academy, a fictitious future classroom where cadets from Star Fleet Academy (with names suspiciously like those of the SFB staff and playtesters) sharpen their tactical skills in classroom debates and simulator exercises.

“The Academy,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 39

I hold Captain’s Log as a prime example of how the experiences of a wargame can be told through creative fiction. It’s sad that we don’t see more of this, but that may be because telling a story in hard. Sometimes, it takes professionals.

FICINT

While wargame narratives can educate and entertain, it also can be used to inform. Here is where the professional wargamer side of me steps forward. In many ways, I consider a some wargame narratives to actually be what some have taken to calling FICINT – Fictional Intelligence.

‘FICINT’ (Fictional Intelligence), also known as ‘useful fiction’, is an analytic tool that melds narrative and nonfiction. Its attributes are particularly attuned to aiding in visualizing new technology and trends – key issues at play in geopolitical change emergent great power competition. But it is not mere storytelling. There are rules to using this tool successfully, however.

Abstract, “Thinking the Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer, 2020

This quote comes from a recent journal article written by August Cole and Peter W. Singer, authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (HMH, 2015). In a recent journal article for Queens University in Canada, Cole, an author by profession, and Singer, part of a think tank, explain how in Ghost Fleet they wanted to, “bring to the surface…the issues of a world to come, in which there was not just a resurgence of great power rivalry and a risk of war, but also a future in which traditional US military advantages through new technologies such as space-based communications or fifth generation jest might give way to new vulnerabilities, such as supply chain security and weaponized satellites….Doubling down, we went the route of a new kind of novel with research endnotes.”

Unfortunately, Cole & Singer tend to denigrate the usefulness of wargames in ‘useful fiction’. They don’t like wargames because, as they put write, it violates their “rule of the real” which are:

  • “…it must be set in the real world.”
  • “…also reflect the real world.”
  • “…should reflect who realistically might be there and how real people would act under those circumstances.”
  • “…what Clausewitz called ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ should also be ever-present.”

Cole and Singer go on to discuss one further point:

The rule of the real also means there is no ‘vaporware’ in FICINT. Unlike in science fiction or frankly in many military wargames and program plans, any technology or system in the story must already exist or be in development.

“Thinking The Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer

Here I disagree. The narrative from a wargame can follow Cole & Singer’s “Rule of the Real”…if the right wargame is played. The best wargames for FICINT are obviously ones that project into the near future. A recent example of how the narrative of a wargame can be ‘useful fiction’ is found at the US Army’s Mad Scientist Laboratory in an article titled, “281. Would You Like to Play a Game? Wargaming as a Learning Experience and Key Assumptions Check.”

I recently came across an article in War on the Rocks by Dr. James Lacey, entitled How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”1 The piece was written a year ago, and details his work at the Marine Corps War College where he had his students simulate a broad global conflict involving the United States dealing with simultaneous outbreaks of conflict in Europe, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait. To run the event, Dr. Lacey used the commercially available Next War series of games published by GMT Games, which simulate a near-future conflict in these areas. The game system is complex, but in Dr. Lacey’s words, offers a reasonable approximation of near future conflict at the operational level of war. Dr. Lacey’s article, and an earlier piece he wrote on wargaming,2 offer a compelling argument for the utility of gaming as a classroom learning tool, allowing students to analyze critical problems and test their solutions, and most importantly, discuss what they learned with a rigorous after-action report (AAR) discussion.

“How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”

Along the way, and to help the process, he wrote…a narrative which starts as this:

The war began in the fall, with a Russian invasion of all three Baltic States and Poland. Belarus sided with Russia, and contributed to the attack. The Russians had some very early success in the Baltic States, but were a bit bloodied in the process. It took Russia about five days to occupy the Baltic States before it was able to turn its full attention on Poland. NATO was relatively well-prepared for the conflict, and had significant air power ready and available on D-day. Most importantly, thanks to solid indications and warning, the United States Army had a strong presence in Poland prior to the conflict. In addition to the standard Europe-based forces of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and a Europe-based US rotational HBCT — in this case, the 2nd BCT of the 3rd Infantry Division — the entire 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st BCT of the 101st Air Assault Division were on hand in the crisis period.

Here is an example where a wargamer took the experience of play, carefully recorded it, and then studied it. The game created a version of ‘useful fiction’ that can be used to educate, entertain, and inform. It is very ‘useful fiction’.

The Alternate History Wargame Story

Historical wargames can create another narrative, an alternate history story. Indeed, one could argue that historical conflict simulations are a form of alternate history where the historical outcome in a game is just one of an infinite number of possibilities.

Too often that becomes the problem; players will protest a game that doesn’t deliver the historical outcome. This is unfortunate because a good designer will give us a wargame where the historical outcome is possible but not guaranteed. That doesn’t mean the historical outcome need be the ‘norm’ for the very outcome that history tells us to expect may have been the outlier event. If I play a wargame and the historical outcome is preordained, I have no interest in exploring further. But if it instead gives me the tools to explore….

Take for instance Cataclysm: A Second World War (Scott Muldoon, GMT Games, 2018). The game is explicitly NOT a recreation of the Second World War. Rather, the game puts the players in the midst of the conditions leading up to the war and lets them figure it out.

At the end of the day, I personally find reading alternate history narratives boring. They are often boring for the same reasons I find the entire alternate history genre tiring; the stories often revolve around an issue that was not central to the change depicted. More importantly, I don’t particularly enjoy alternate history wargame narratives because I want to play a wargame and actively create the narrative, not sit and read it passively.

Wargames Are Narratives

Wargames can create many narratives. Be it to educate, entertain, inform, or just look at how history may have taken a different course, wargames can be used to tell a story. The trick is to tell a good story for those are few and far between.

I’ll personally admit that I write poor AARs. A few times I have tried to tell the AAR with a story. To be honest, I find them fun to write. Here is one of my more recent ones, the “Saga of Lt T in Undaunted: North Africa.” That said, they are far from polished. All too often they lack a focus of purpose. Maybe now after this discussion I will do better?

A #wargame journey from hex & counter to waro through Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (@gmtgames, 2019)

BARRING ANY UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCES, Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) is very likely to end up as my Game of the Year. As a dyed-in-the-wool hex & counter wargamer, I find myself equally surprised and ashamed when I make statements like that. Designer Mike Bertucelli (@Hobiecat on Twitter) has done what I thought was impossible – make an enjoyable tactical tank combat wargame without a hex board or dice.

pic1444385
Courtesy BGG

Tactical tank combat games have a special place in my wargaming heart. Indeed, the first wargame I ever played was Jim Day’s Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979). In many ways, that game set my expectations of a wargame for most of the rest of my life. I believed that a wargame needed must have a hex map, combat results tables (CRT), dice-rolling, and detailed rules. At the same time, I fell into a very detailed, simulationist portion of the wargame hobby that focused on tactical warfare. Panzer or MBT or Squad Leader for ground combat, the Admiralty Trilogy (Command at Sea or Harpoon) for naval combat, JD Websters Fighting Wings (Actung: Spitfire or Speed of Heat) for air combat. I even took it to the science-fiction realm going all-in on the original Star Fleet Battles-series of games.

Over the years, my fetish for detailed simulations weakened, and in the mid-2010s when I really discovered hobby boardgaming with the family my wargaming perspectives also changed. I needed to find wargames that I could play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys in an evening. I needed wargames that were more than manual modeling & simulation designs. I needed games that would engage them with the history; building a narrative of history through play. This led me to waros, or “wargame-Eurogames.”

Which brings me back to Tank Duel Enemy in the Crosshairs. The GMT Games pages describes the game as follows:

Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs is a card-based game for 1 to 8 players that depicts tank-to-tank warfare on the Eastern Front of World War II in the early to mid 1940s. It attempts to convey the claustrophobia and urgency that tank crews experienced in this bitter conflict, utilizing a simple Action system to keep the action moving at a rapid pace. Players will issue commands with the use of Battle Cards and attempt to score Victory Points by claiming Objectives and eliminating their opponent’s tanks and crew.

….

The tank board will be used to keep track of information regarding the status of a tank and its crew.  Types of condition could include, tank on fire, damage tracks, immobilized and damage to the gun.

….

Each player will be managing a hand of cards. With these cards the player will be able to take actions.

There is so much here that doesn’t meet my classic (stale?) wargame definition; 1-8 players? Simple Action system? A tank board? Hand of cards?

But it works. I mean, it really works!

tank_duel-main-1420
Courtesy Inside GMT Games

A typical Tank Duel game will see four tanks (or more!) in a fight. There is no mapboard but only an abstract range from battlefield center. Lateral movement is through flanking cards. Terrain is also depicted by cards. The battle lasts only long enough to cycle through the deck several times. Best of all, if a tank is destroyed a new one replaces it next turn.

There are still several echos of my tactical tank games here. Panzer players will feel comfortable with the combat tables. But all that detail gets hidden by a set of very innovative Battle Cards. Many will claim that this has been done before in Up Front (Avalon Hill, 1983) and several other games since. That may be true, but in today’s hyper-competitive publishing market it is actually rare to find wargames that totally dispense with the mapboard or dice.

However, it’s not the “non-traditional” mechanics that make Tank Duel a game I enjoy. Few wargames have ever generated a narrative during play like I get playing Tank Duel. As I look over my hand of cards, I try to put together a plan. I try to dash up the hill (Move) so I can get into an overwatch position to shoot (Fire) only to be mired by my opponent playing a Mud card (Terrain) which allows him to flank me (Flank card). As my crew tries to unbog the tank my turret is hammered, killing my Commander and breaking the morale of the crew. As my tank brews up I reset my Tank Board to bring my next tank into the battle, swearing at the loss of my fellow soldiers and looking to avenge their deaths. The more I played, the more I came to realize that what I enjoyed was not the details of the battle (Hey, my 8.8cm gun penetrated your turret from 400 yards!) but the visceral tension of the combat (I have to close the range…I am going to play two move cards to close the range and go hull down to be ready to shoot after that…unless my opponent plays a mud card and bogs me down in something I cannot see!). The real tension of Tank Duel is not the details of the combat, it’s in the making of a combat story.

A combat story without hex & counter or dice or complicated rules but abstracted using a tableau and innovative cards.


Feature image by self

My 2019 Golden Geek Award Challenge – The (lack of) story behind Zooloretto (Rio Grande Games, 2007)

IN THE PAST I HAVE TRIED TO BE A EUROGAMER. I have not done very well. Maybe it’s my wargame roots. Maybe it’s because I can be stubborn. Sometimes it’s because Eurogames fail to engage me. That’s surely the case with Zooloretto (Rio Grande Games, 2007). In 2007 Zooloretto won the Golden Geek Award for Best Family Game/Best Children’s Game. I think I bought Zooloretto that year or next based on this award. The oldest RMN Kids would have been between nine and 12 years old so this should of been an enjoyable game for them.

It wasn’t.

I recall playing the game a few times and the RMN Kids not engaging with it and telling me, “it’s boring.” Surely, a colorful game with animals and a zoo should of appealed to them, right? Why not?

For my 2019 Golden Geek Challenge I pulled Zooloretto out and gave it a spin. At it’s heart, Zooloretto is a simple set collection and tile placement game. That’s it. Draw tiles and place them on the truck. Collect truck. Place in your zoo. Use money to open up new enclosures and get money for sets of animals. Rinse, repeat until all tiles used. Score. Dead simple. That’s the game described mechanically. Hearing the game described in this manner is B-O-R-I-N-G.

I think that was my mistake. The game is really a story about zoos competing against each other. Each player wants to have the full enclosures with vending nearby to earn more money and attract more visitors. Animals in the barn don’t earn money; in fact, they lose money. The more visitors you have, the more points you earned. Most visitors win!

The box back has a little narrative blurb to sell that theme:

Each player uses small, large, wild and exotic animals and their young to try and attract as many visitors as possible to their zoo.

But be careful – the zoo must be carefully planned. Before you know it, you have too many animals and no more room for them. That brings minus points! Luckily, your zoo can expand.

The box back sells the theme, but no mechanics. That connection should be in the rule book. Unfortunately, a connection between theme and mechanics doesn’t really come through. The closest is the introduction:

GAME IDEA

Each player is a zoo owner. Players score points by attracting as many visitors to their zoos as possible. To accomplish this, they must collect matching sets of animals. If a player manages to obtain very many animals for his zoo, then he will find it worthwhile to expand. Because once the enclosures are full, the animals need to go into the barn and the player loses points again. Small vending stalls near the enclosures guarantee a minimum number of visitors. The player with the most points wins the game.

There is so much wrong with that little blurb:

  • Each player is a zoo owner (Check)
  • Players score points by attracting as many visitors to their zoo as possible (but nowhere else does it say points are people)
  • …they must collect matching sets of animals (well, it is a set collection game)
  • If a player manages to obtain many animals for his zoo, then he will find it worthwhile to expand (actually, you need money to expand)
  • Because once the enclosures are full the animals need to go to the barn…. (technically a player can place animals in the barn even with empty enclosures)
  • …and the player loses points again (wait, where did it tell me I lost points the first time?)
  • Small vending stalls near the enclosure guarantee a minimum number of visitors (guarantee is a bit of a strong word here)
  • The player with the most points wins the game (you mean visitors, right?).

I shouldn’t have to work this hard to connect theme and mechanics.

That said, I may try to bring this one out again on a game night. At ages 8+ and 45 minutes playing time a few of Mrs RMN’s students may be candidates for play. Next time though I am going to try to sell them on the theme before I explain the game mechanics.

Game of the Week – or – Visiting Neptune’s Inferno with Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

For most of the campaign, Guadalcanal was a contest of equals, perhaps the only major battle in the Pacific where the United States and Japan fought from positions of parity. Its outcome was often in doubt. – James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, Prologue.

pic360048From the perspective of game mechanics, Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988) can be a real chore. This solitaire game leverages a heavy workload on the player to not only make decisions for their own side, but also to run the opposing AI. However, once you make it past the initial (steep?) learning curve, the game opens up a narrative battle experience unlike so many others.

In a way it is unfair to call Tokyo Express a historical game. Yes, there are scenarios that replicate the starting conditions of many battles, but the real power of Tokyo Express is how it make the unknown a part of the game and forces the player to deal with it. What may be the two most important rules in Tokyo Express are not what many grognards would think. Rule 6.0 Detection and 7.0 Japanese Hidden Forces are the parts of the game that make the narrative come alive.

Before you can open fire, you must see the target. That is the crux of 6.0 Detection. Be it visually or by radar, the importance of detecting the enemy first is a core game mechanic in Tokyo Express. When taken in combination with 7.0 Hidden Japanese Forces, the game creates it own unique narrative of battle ensuring that no two games are ever alike. The Design Note for 7.0 actually frames the entire game and brings the drama of the battle to the forefront:

The game begins with you patrolling Ironbottom Sound, looking for the Japanese who are somewhere off in the darkness. The Japanese appear initially as blips on your long-range search radar. Hidden forces represent anything your radar operator thinks might be a Japanese force. Sometimes it will indeed be warships; other times it will just be a “radar ghost.” You find out by detecting it.

In Tokyo Express, game designer Jon Southard captures the most important elements of the naval battle around Guadalcanal. In his Design Notes he makes no excuses for the difficulty of the game. In some ways Mr. Southard was ahead of his time when he designed Tokyo Express to be an “experience” and not a “simulation.” He especially makes no excuse for the difficulty of winning:

In your initial encounters with Tokyo Express, you will, I hope, feel some of the frustration and awe the American admirals did. The objective throughout the design process was to give you their bridge-eye view. You may be defeated at first, but you should find your own solutions, as the US admirals finally did.

8575701By making its core design feature “find your own solutions,” Tokyo Express takes what many wargames do, challenging players to find a path to victory, and elevates it to the highest levels of the hobby. It is a testimony to the power of his design that 30 years after its initial publication the title is worthy of a reprint. Pairing this game with James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam Books, 2011) allows one to not only read the history, but then take the same human drama Hornfischer relates and make it come alive.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

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 #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you enjoy using as is?

#RPGaDay August 16, 2017

pic536195_tI have a few candidates here; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Mindjammer (FATE Core 2nd Edition), Diaspora, and FFG Star Wars. There are two (mostly) common threads amongst all those games. They all use a more narrative game mechanic and they are (mostly) all licensed IP.

Of the two, the narrative game mechanics (Cortex, FATE 3.0 or FATE Core, FFG Narrative Dice) means the games easily focus on story (adventure?) with world-building details coming in a less-structured manner. 20120423b

Although many of these games use licensed IPs, don’t think that by using these “as is” I am a canon-rigid thinker. I enjoy using the game systems “as is”, but the world-building details and adventures are definitely NOT limited by canon.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

#RPGaDay August 14, 2017

pic514176#TravellerRPG, nee Cepheus Engine. No surprise if you have been following my #RPGaDay for 2017. But, not just any version or style of Traveller, but what Tales to Astound calls “Out-of-the-Box” Traveller. This version of Traveller depends on using Encounters as they were originally laid out in the 1977 Little Black Books – as tools for creating the setting, situation, and play. It wasn’t laid out for you in an adventure or campaign arc; the GM created it on-the-fly.

It’s true that such an approach is not exclusive to one game; indeed, I use this approach in my Edge of the Empire campaigns. More narrative-driven games, like FATE Core and FATE Accelerated actually use game mechanics to encourage this kind of on-the-fly creation. But no game does it as well as Classic Traveller does.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Describe a game experience that changed how you play

#RPGaDay August 13, 2017

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Courtesy quickmeme.com

When I first started GMing RPGs with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I looked at gaming with kids as a teaching tool. In one of our early sessions, when one kid (kiddingly) said he was going to backstab the other, I took control of their character and took the event out to its gruesome conclusion. All against their wishes. I took away all player agency and ran away in the wrong direction.

Total failure on my part.

I have come to recognize that RPGs are a valuable teaching tool, but learning comes best with a proper balance of player agency and GM fiat. This may be part of why I prefer systems that have a built-in narrative mechanic (like Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG) or are more narratively focused (like FATE Accelerated) or rules-lite (Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine RPGs – yes, I said rules-lite – look at the core mechanic!).

I have found that sharing the narrative is the most important part of learning. With a shared narrative, the RMN Boys are challenged to create more themselves. Game sessions become more me responding to their creativity than me prepping in advance and laying out the adventure. This often means the adventure goes places I never expected, but never does it go in a direction that isn’t enjoyed by all.