Sunday, September 26, 2010

More thinking about Wargames instead of playing

I had hoped to get the troops out this weekend for a bit of practice  but alas! renovations on the house have spilled over into my games room, submerging my table.  Much of my time "off" therefore, has been devoted to rescuing it.  On the bright side, by end of day my books will be much better organized. (even though a certain blog post has resulted in me ordering 3 Leonaur publishing books via, "The Mounted Volunteer: A Diary of a Private of Missouri Mounted Volunteers on the Expedition to California, 1846" (just the thing for my Oregon War), "Three Cheers for the Queen-Lancers Charge! the Experiences of a Sergeant of 16th Queen's Lancers in Afghanistan, the Gwalior War, the First Sikh War ", and "Lady Sale's Afghanistan" - have wanted to read this since I first read Flashman. Looks like more shuffling will be required for the already most crowded section shortly).

However, I have had time to digest some more thoughts and  magazine articles, contemplate past games etc and do some minor field trials in a corner of the table. The results are both hopeful and annoying. Hopeful because they indicate that I am not far off the mark and that workable, successful rules solutions already exist in past versions and annoying because it appears that I have once again abandoned working solutions for less successful ones.

I started by assessing the rules from a different angle than the player's enjoyment: "Do the rules encourage appropriate tactics and normally provide appropriate results". Since the rules had been designed to do this, I expected the answer to be yes. Now I only had 1 play tester but when rolling actual dice on the table top, I quickly found that the answer to both questions was "no". It was only after the fact that I realized that in doing so they also violated several of my own criteria for a successful game, in other words, in practice, they also worked against player enjoyment.

The main culprit was the old bugbear, shooting and its sometime sidekick the morale test. How do you make medium range shooting useful without making it decisive, how do you encourage players to close when attacking, how do you (or should you) reflect some of the historical negative consequences of troops opening fire too soon, how do you capture, with simple rules, the point in a close range exchange of fire when one side gives way whether under orders or without and above all, how do you do all this in a way that makes the game challenging and interesting and capable of recreating historical situations?

Well, my systems were simple enough I think, but other than that there were multiple problems. The worst sin, was that if you took a small battle like Chippewa, and just followed the original unit actions, the game might go as the original, if the dice fell right but it would take something like 20 turns to play, in most of which almost nothing would happen. For a battle which lasted 3 1/2 hours this is actually about right but as a game with 1/2 a dozen units aside including artillery, it won't be an exciting 3 hours! A little practical die rolling also showed that the dice would only rarely give the right result (it thus being possible rather than probable)  and while the system could be tweaked, either the outcomes became too random and often wrong or the whole thing became even more boring and predictable.

Oddly enough I have played the battle successfully as a game before, using an older versions of HofT. I believe that where I got into trouble was once again being fooled into working bottom up from details then trying to simplify and preach while maintaining scales instead of top down for  effect. This is where MacDuff always went off the rails and I thought that was a lesson learned.

The preaching bit refers to the assumption that if you can make the rules mirror tactical advice of the time, then players can be taught to do things "right". In practice most players are not going to be "into" the period enough and are not going to play enough to do that or care for that matter. It was gratifying at one Cold Wars game with lots of players unfamiliar with MacDuff, to see one player who was familiar with mid-19thC British tactics chasing off the various native levies before him while the other players struggled while carrying on a long distance firefight, in some cases with entrenched enemies, regardless of a prior briefing which warned them of the inadvisability of doing so. In the final analysis, this wasn't successful rules design. It made it possible for people who had the same concept as me of appropriate tactics to apply them successfully, but if didn't naturally result in either players picking up and applying those tactics or else taking the individual unit's tactical "how" out of the general's "where" and "when" decision to attack or defend.

In effect, this comes back to who the game is being designed for, how big a typical game is and how long the game is expected to last before either being called or reaching a natural conclusion and what sorts of decisions players are expected to make.  In practical terms, this means rolling back recent changes and going back to my old system, modified from Morschauser, where shooting (effective range if you will) wears an enemy down but "melee" (decisive combat whether close range shooting or charges) will result in both casualties and a forced retreat.

The second issue to be addressed is that of army morale and again I will resurrect a past model which is to establish an allowable damage level per brigade and test for units to rout beyond this. I just need to settle the details.

Now back to sorting books and clearing the table.


  1. Interesting reading, Ross. I like these "thinking" posts.

    -- Jeff

  2. Hi Ross,
    Are you sure you're not being too hard on yourself? Considering the huge number of variables in a battle -- where the simple matter of a unit holding on for one more critical turn under fire may spell the difference between victory and defeat (as I'm sure happened sometimes in the "real" world as well) -- what guage are you using to say your results are not accurate?


  3. Conrad, yes you are, and I'm grateful.

    Jeff, glad to hear it. I'm very much enjoying having the opportunity to think 'out loud' as it were. Helps me focus my thoughts not to mention the benefits of dialog.

  4. John, I use a totally subjective measure of " does it feel right" . But that is backed up with well let's say a few years of study. I don't mind, even encourage the occassional odd result, especially if there is precedent but I prefer expected outcomes to be common place not the exception.

    It helps to have a reference point so for now for various reasons I have been focussing on the war of 1812 with occassional bits elsewhere.

    The sorts of things that gave me grief as I experimented solo with tweaks were such things as troops routinely fighting to the last man on one hand ( because the general had no incentive to pull them out without a campaign context and the rules didn't force it easily enough) to veteran regulars retreating off the table at the 1st shot, something I don't have a precedent for in this context. other issues that are also fixed (I think) were things like line infantry at one point of testing,routinely outshooting skirmishers at long range, when that was not what I was intending. (pesky dice)

    I'm no statisticion so when calculating odds with varying numbers of dice and different scores to hit, I sometimes have to do 10 or 20 run throughs with dice and figures to see if what I intend as the normal result actual happens often enough to satisfy me and if odd results happen too often. Not usually enough run throughs to be valid if it works but enough if its not good.