EXERT FROM APPENDIX 1 from Don Featherstone's Battles With Model Soldiers
(The book that got me started.)

"Nothing in these pages is a dictate, no word says you must or you shall do it this way. On the contrary, the book sets out from the very beginning to stimulate the reader to think for himself, and to use what he has read merely as a foundation for efforts and ideas which reflect his own temperament and character. Only in this way will he obtain maximum satisfaction from the hobby of battling with model soldiers."

-Don Featherstone 1918 - 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fort Improvise - Planning Game 2

The game in the last post was an enjoyable way to spend and hour or two, better than another game of solitaire on the computer but as Bluebear Jeff pointed out in a comment, I had not described it as "fun". Now "fun" is a nebulous and personal thing but since "having fun" is one of the main reasons I play with toy soldiers, it bears thinking about none the less.

Since this was a previously untested scenario, using a set of rules I don't usually use for this period, with a slightly different organization than I normally use with these figures and played solo with a plan of following the historical precedent as closely as possible without fudging, the questions arose of what impact each of these four aspects had on the degree of fun experienced and what steps, if any, could be taken to make the game more fun?

A good starting point would be a review of the sorts of things that tend to contribute to a game being fun for me. (click here for a related post on rules qualities from 2010). To overly summarize, I like there to be challenge and drama.

Challenge preferably comes at least in part from an opponent but also from the situation and, for me, implies that I will be able to make decisions that affect the outcome, not just once but at frequent points through the game.

Drama comes not only from tension surrounding moments of decision but from being being able to build a story which, for me, includes knowing who the actors are, having them have a history and being able to recognize them on a table. This is one of the advantages to fictional armies where one can build such a history without bending a real one by doing things like using the 41st Foot at Crysler's Farm or calling them the 49th Foot.  Tension can come from trying to out maneuver an opponent but usually comes from  die rolls or other forms of chance when there is a lot riding on that particular roll. Again, too many meaningless rolls can drain the excitement while having a few die rolls be critical can make the whole game feel a bit like a crap shoot. Having too many small units tends towards them becoming faceless hordes, having too few   tends towards either a lack of depth in a game if one or 2 turns is enough to decide it, or towards a dull and tedious game if turn after turn goes by with nothing much happening as slow attrition takes its toll.

So how did the game stack up for each of these?

Well, when it came to challenge it was near to non-existent since I wasn't really playing either side in this test, other than to make minor decisions. The closest was choosing whether to send the reserve over the bridge or to throw them against the militia first. The battle plans for both sides were set. Having an opponent might have helped as would having picked one side and programmed the other but when looking at set up and victory conditions, there really weren't a lot of  choice available to either player. The only way to change that would be to allow the players more room to make their own plans and that is what I normally try to do with scenarios once I'm satisfied that the historical action is a plausible result. There are a couple of options here, one is to jigger the forces, or the set up or the terrain.

The first thing is that the Americans (and often the British) tended to find the Indians very unpredictable. To simulate this while adding uncertainty and player choices I will change the Indian deployment. Instead of starting some units in the woods and the rest in camp I will start them all off board and allow the Indian player to deploy units through out the game in any patch of woods. This will give the Indian player the challenge of choosing when and where to commit his units and should make the American player nervous about his flanks. It will also make it easier to achieve the historical result of surrounding a large portion of the American militia.

The second is to change the layout to make the action more central and let the British reinforcements move up off table. I was a little curious about the bridge in the map I was using since it is not mentioned other than on that one map. I dug out my copy of Antal's Wampum Denied and no bridge appears there but there are rapids south of the British batteries forcing the Americans to cross the river off table to the south while the British have to cross the river off table to the North. Other than the Indians, all troops will have to be committed before the game begins making an interesting choice and making the mobile Indians even more valuable.

If the game is then played without being constricted to historical choices either as a multi-player (ie 2 or more) or solo vs a programmed enemy the game should become more engaging.

Drama and story telling was slightly diminished because I had not really established who was who in terms of units and officers. Was the 3rd Ohio  itself for today or was it standing for some Kentucky militia and which officer is this again?   That's easily fixed once the game is treated as a generic scenario. Less easily fixed is where drama meets tension. Instead of the plot building to a big climax it felt like there were some almost too quick outcomes interspersed with stretches where nothing much was happening.

On paper, there were several incidents that sound like they SHOULD have been notable  but they didn't really feel like it. The rout of the Grenadiers is an example, logically the clash between 2 companies each of 4 figures was no different than a clash between two Charge! companies of 19 figures would have been. In both cases there would be 4 dice of fire and it would take an above average roll to rout the opponent but somehow this didn't feel as drastic as such a result in Charge! would have been, possible because there were fewer "bodies". The fact that it didn't really affect the over all outcome of the counter attack may be significant and possibly if the British and Americans had each been treated as a single unit instead of a group of small ones, the result might have felt more dramatic. Of course since I've had very similar instances in 2 player Battlecry games feel dramatic it may simply reflect a lack of over all engagement due to the other factors.

There were also some rules issues though. Hearts of Tin was originally written for larger armies of "stands" or "elements".  Taking those rules and using single stands as units on a grid didn't change the feel but I have been uneasy with trying to get the right feel with a free choice of single figures or elements. I did experiment with a Black Powder-ish  approach where a unit is a unit regardless of figures or elements but while I don't have an objection to the concept I don't find it as satisfying as either the figure or element approach. I went back to the element approach with single figures being just so many Strength points gathered into imaginary elements and it does work. For some reason though, if the figures aren't stuck on bases, the element part doesn't seem to take, and its not just me, I've noticed the same effect with other people when I've run games with a mix of based and non-based "elements". It can be taught but it doesn't come naturally and I like things that come naturally. There is an obvious solution of course. This is the main reason why MacDuff is still on the books and it may be that this is one puzzle that isn't worth solving although it also leaves me still dubious that editing 2 sets of rules that end up being 90% the same is worth the work.  I'll leave that as an open question while I reset the table, reorganize the units into their normal War of 1812 16/8 man format, make the various scenario changes and play again.

I did make some mistakes in applying the rules though and that is usually a sign that there is a design issue. In past games there seemed to be too many Brigadiers with too much power so I took away most of their power except that I forgot that when playing. Since neither the American nor the British General appears on table in this scenario, the Brigadiers, who were actually lower level officers who played a significant command role in the real action, would have been at a bit of a loss other than to co-ordinate their few units. As it was they carried on in the old style and it felt right. I also wasn't happy with the way the Distant Orders rule worked. The need is for it to be harder for Generals to control units that are far away but it didn't quite work. Revisiting the whole command system and cross referencing with MacDuff reminded me of a (hopefully) better way and I restored the Brigadier's to their usual leadership roles but took away their easy replacement again and changed the Distant or Out of Command rules to what has been working for MacDuff. A small change but I'm down to the small ones.




  1. Maybe the 'fun' element as a bit missing from this exercise, but I feel that the learning process of nutting out what works and what doesn't is as valuable, and will contribute to 'fun' in later games.

    I'm not sure whether this observation is relevant, but in my own rules sets I find the really small company-sized action (10 or so figures the side) though viable (playable), are generally over very quickly, and are chancy into the bargain.

    The chanciness means that 'against expectation' results happen quite often. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If I have 2 small combats going, both of which are 2-1 in my favour, the probability of winning both is slightly less than 50-50. Which means I'm more likely than not to lose at least one (4:5 in fact). Of course, the probability of my winning at least one (let's look at it that way) is 8:1.

    I tend to fight my cavalry actions at squadron level - at least that is the approach I'm experimenting with. Each combat is pretty quick, but if the overall engagement is regimental in scale, then the thing can become quite prolonged. But you do get the 'charge and counter-charge' effect of the cavalry fight as a whole.

    The combination of low level action and the effect of 'combined odds' can lead to some interesting kinds of decision making, I think. In a desperate situation, a defender outnumbered 2 to 1 might try and arrange for 2 combats at those odds instead of 1, counting on the likelihood of winning one of them.


    1. Ion, I absolutely agree. Its pretty rare that I turn an historical action into a game scenario and get it exactly right on the first pass and this time around I was testing rules fit at the same time.

      One of the issues with 1812 actions is that the troop density is low so you do sometimes get that quick result but on the other hand some of the historical actions between small forces dragged on for hours which can be a challenge to translate onto the table without becoming boring. In the past I tried what you might call indecisive results where units might be forced back but able to return quickly, again and again but bigger battles took too long so I'm trying to re-balance so that small actions produce small but interesting games and the larger ones are still practical.

      Its interesting to think about game odds calculation and the resulting tactical decisions might relate to how the same encounter might have looked in life and what sorts of decision making process the commander might have used. The terms might be different and more clearly defined but the basic choices might not change much.