Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and the March to Plattsburg

Scruby 40mm ACW led by Zinnbrigade Homecast Prussians, all converted to 1840's US infantry.

Over the last week, a bout of flu interfered with useful stuff like working on the house & yard, painting miniatures and playing games but didn't stop me from reading, or from thinking. One may question the acuity of the latter at some stages where the line between awake and asleep was thin but still, not for the first time, it seems to me that my efforts to write just the "right" set of simple horse and musket rules for a simple fictional toy soldier game keep hitting stumbling blocks and that practice and theory don't seem to jive well. Now, I have dabbled in the world of "Imagi-nations" though with historically uniformed troops and  the latest version of MacDuff is only 6,400 (roughly) words on 13 pages and there are those who would consider that a sign of absolute basic simplicity, but I have to wonder. 

It bothers me that I can be heard talking about top down, results oriented designs, flexible scales and toy soldier attitudes and games but I still get hung up looking at ground and time scales, drill books, orders of battle, unit organizations, casualty rates in historical battles where I can get them, and so on.  Now putting aside the possibility of unintended hypocracy, (in other words the possibility that I am lying to myself and thus others) for reasons beyond my comprehension, the next most likely situation is that there is unresolved cognitive dissonance between the old, well entrenched, simulationist POV and the newer experience of the pleasures of the simple game as a game. 

Now, I don't have to do one OR the other. One can play simulation wargames and still enjoy Parchesi. It also possible to consciously choose a middle road where one tries to find a balance between game and simulation. Indeed this is well trodden ground, the majority of wargames fit here. The trick is to really know what you seek, find the spot along the continuum that fits, and keep it firmly in mind.  Its the old adage:

In order to set a course, you need to know where you want to go. 

It would be nice to be able to sit down from scratch, set out objectives and criteria and designing mechanisms and so forth, but I'm not at a good spot for a clean start and don't want to wipe the slate. The next best thing would be to work on some concrete, specific, detailed criteria and choose a set to use as a guide when looking at the rules.  Of course, we all know that won't happen.

One choice to be made is how serious am I about designing the rules for my specific needs and letting others make what use they wish of any part of them vs designing a set that will accommodate me but be more widely useful.  MacDuff to the Frontier was originally written specifically for the Colonial games that Ron and I were playing using the figures that we had. There was no intent to share them more widely and it was serendipity that led to them being published in Courier after Dick Bryant followed up on a thread on homebrew rules on rgmh. (Does rgmh still exist or has TMP, blogging and other forums replaced it altogether?)

Another choice is whether I want the core intention to be the ability to recreate historic battles  in some   
fashion with other games being secondary or whether the inverse is true. If the former than the ability to cope with varied OB's and asymetrical situations is very important as is some recognition of scale and the ability to produce a believable outcome on a regular basis. If the latter than the key focus should be on such things as ease of designing armies and balanced scenarios and the gaming experience, the others things become a desirable bonus.  

One quick example of the effect that this sort of focus can have. If the rules specify that an army has to have exactly X, lets say 12 units each of a closely defined size and that the battle field must be exactly this shape and size and meet a list of criteria for terrain, then its is easy to deploy and play a generic game and the rules can be simplified. Turning an historical battle into a scenario, however, will require much abstraction and/or some bending or breaking of rules. On the other hand, if your units, armies and battlefield  are wide open, it is easier to turn a battle into a scenario once you have established ground and figure scales but the rules now have to cope with a wide variety of  hard to predict situations. Setting up and resolving a quick generic game becomes  a complex question usually over come by player experience or additional play aids (like scenario books designed for that rule set). 

Ok, we're on the home stretch now. Lets look at one detail that I've been struggling with. My Morschauser inspired rules had my equivalent of his Basic Unit at the core. Each of these had characteristics and was the entity around which the game was built. Until I started getting into  a hybrid set, it didn't really matter what made a basic unit as long as both sides were similar. With MacDuff, the rules laid out what constituted a unit, how many officers, how many men, drummers, flags etc. Players always had the choice to ignore this and I did myself but doing so affected how the rules played and how effective units were. To get around that, I had  to start changing rules, either making them more complex or dropping key flavour.   

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been playing about with  unit organizations vs rules. Put simply, if a unit is a unit,  then the game is easier to design. As soon as the unit of play becomes sometimes a company of say 6 to 12 figures including 1 or 2 leaders and sometimes a 2,3 or 4 company battalion of up to 48 figures with somewhere between 5 and 9 leaders, let alone other  configurations and things get tricky. The rules need to be carefully worded to avoid unintended benefits to odd organizations. Players have to decide on the best organization, depending on what sort of games they want to play, a strictly scales historical organization is unlikely to work so they must choose the "right" one for them. How many men in a company how many leaders, is there a reason not to have the maximum?  Its a head ache. 

So what was my intent as designer? What kind of games do I want really want to play? If its recreating historical battles, shouldn't the rules be adjusted to make that easy? If its not based on historical OB's, should the focus be on what makes a convenient force for gaming? Start perhaps with how many "units" that a player needs to be kept involved without bogging down  and the heck with what they represent for now. Should these "units" be prescribed and let others worry when their make-believe organization is "wrong"?   or should more effort be made to make the rules organization independent?  All choices without a right or wrong answer. Its all about intent and this simple horse has really been pushing the rules cart around for some time now. 

Enough for now, I need to resolve this question and maybe make a few quick rule changes before I start in on the game I have just laid out to play tomorrow, the battle of Plattsburg.  

No, not Plattsburg NY in 1814, but a game based on a famous ACW engagement. The name isn't quite right, nor the terrain, especially the hills, Still, Rabbit Ridge and Green Hill are there, the Wheat field, the Church, and Bull Creek. so those well versed in classic OS Wargame books may recognize the field of battle. 


  1. Ah! the ACW battle from Don Featherstones book 'Wargames'

  2. Interesting thoughts, Ross. One thought that occurred to me was that too many rule sets attempt to cover too much ground.

    Any war is likely to have battles that are very different from each other in both composition and style.

    Indeed, for many you might well want to write separate rules for each battle.

    For now I'll just look forward to your battle account.

    -- Jeff

  3. Good points Jeff. It would even be practical to start with a set of base rules and tweak them for each battle the way some boardgame series used to work.

    Might be a good way to go for the historical aspects.

  4. For what it's worth, my most lasting projects (and you've been tied into most of them) over the past 15 years have been things that worked out from the toys, not down from the battle...

    That is to say, I liked painting companies of about a a dozen F&IW figures--more than that and I'd get bored doing them. The Courier MacDuff rules appeared at just the right time, and matched the toys I was already working on. Rough Wooing was designed to build on the toys I had; Medieval Mayhem was designed after the figures were on hand. Charge and Sword and the Flame both tap into that "handful of painting level", as exemplified by MacDuff, though even in charge I sometimes find the 19 man companies a bit of a trial.

    I am at a point this morning where I don't know whether that's a brilliant insigt, or a "Duh"...