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Saturday, 26 September 2015

From Famine to Feast!

For various reasons I have endured a month without a wargame. My dice-rolling muscles have atrophied from disuse. My faculties have been starved of their usual stimulation. Unable to play a game, I was reduced to writing about game design and provoking debate.

This week the drought ended. I made up for lost time with four excellent games in five days. Happy happy joy joy.

Monday: The Washing of the Spears
Plan A was that Garry would lay on a Spanish Civil War skirmish. This was thwarted by his dog-sitting responsibilities. But surely, I said, surely dogs can be moored to a post outside the village hall for a couple of hours? Not these mollycoddled beasts, came the reply. Get a cat, say I.

Happily Bruce had Plan B in the form of his magnificently painted Zulus and their redcoated foes. We spent a happy evening on the northern flank at Isandhlwana, him conducting sustained volley fire, me recycling figures until the fourth wave of Zulus overran the last of the plucky Brits. He'd had his fun, then I had mine. Bruce's rules are slick and quick and produce the right effects with suitable flavour. And his 28mm figures really are gorgeous.

Tuesday: Waterloo v1.0
A proper Bloody Big Battle. This was the first playtest of the Waterloo scenario we have created for the planned display/participation game at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum on 24 October. (Full draft of the scenario in the BBB Yahoo group files as usual.) Six players turned out to be the ideal number, as the battle resolved itself nicely into three fairly distinct fights left, right and centre. It pivoted like a classic linear ancients game: the French left had outflanked and then taken Hougoumont and made good ground beyond it, but the French right was being driven back on Plancenoit by the combined efforts of the Prussians and some outstandingly gallant Dutch-Belgians and friends. Much exciting to-and-fro and ebb-and-flow, and an honourable draw.

D'Erlon's corps advances against La Haye Sainte.
"They came on in the same old way ..."

The players were pleasantly surprised by how well BBB works for Napoleonics, given that it is designed for the wars of half a century later. Before the game some were questioning whether a simple "Aggressive" rating for heavy cavalry would adequately reflect their potency in this period. Three hours later the same players were commenting on how much impact the cavalry were able to make - because with 3" musket range, and no rifled artillery or breechloaders, it is much easier for them to charge around without being blown away. The game had a suitably Napoleonic feel and is very different from, say, a Franco-Prussian BBB battle.

Incidentally, in connection with the planned SOFO event, I came up with a way to engage with members of the public and help them to relate to and understand Waterloo. I took a map of the campaign and plotted the troop movements on to a map of Oxfordshire. Imagine Napoleon invading from Swindon and Reading towards Brussels aka Banbury. Oxford is the Quatre Bras crossroads where Ney is stalled. Napoleon hits the Prussians at Wheatley (Ligny), trying to drive them back along their supply line to High Wycombe (Namur), but instead they fall back northwards upon Bicester (Wavre). The Anglo-Dutch forces scattered around Cheltenham and Stow-on-the-Wold join those retreating from Quatre Bras and unite at Woodstock (Waterloo).

More legible version on Flickr

Wednesday: Indian Takeaway
Mark treated me to Maharajapore, where my East India Company / British forces took on his Marathas in the Gwalior Campaign (1843). This is one of the BBB scenarios Mark is compiling for his planned "Wars in India" collection. These are battles, indeed entire wars that I know next to nothing about, so I am being educated as well as entertained.

Gough's advance guard?
(Actually Lord and Lady Curzon 80 years or so later) 

As the Brits at Maharajapore I had the pleasure of hurling my troops against large numbers of entrenched Maratha cannon. I skilfully coordinated a masterly assault against the main Maratha position. Shockingly bad dice bounced me off at every point. A second attempt was successful but I had lost precious troops and even more precious time.

The Maratha army was Passive and ponderous but was gradually reacting, bringing up reserves and infiltrating round my flanks. With my smaller but more agile and better quality force, I was able to probe for weakness. I managed to pounce on and destroy a second Maratha artillery position. But time ran out before I could take another one, so I was narrowly defeated.

This was a really excellent game full of spicy tactical challenges. The scenario has plenty of manoeuvre, decisions every turn, and juxtaposes asymmetric forces. Great fun.

Friday: Waterloo v.1.1
Just three of us mustered for this second and last playtest before the main event at SOFO. Mark was well cast as a careful and skilful Wellington, while I played Ney to Anton's Napoleon. Our bold plan: to screen Hill and Hougoumont, while punching through the poorer quality Allied troops above Papelotte and driving on Mont St. Jean.

The screening worked fine, and we also seized La Haye Sainte on Turn 3. The punching was also quite successful, sending Saxe-Weimar's Dutch Belgians reeling out of Papelotte. For the driving part, Anton then committed the Guard against the 5th Division and the Hanoverians along the Ohain Road. These were smashed backward. Unfortunately we did not support the Guard's left. We had troops milling around in and near La Haye Sainte, but these failed to move up to protect the Guard, while at the same time causing an unholy traffic jam which masked our artillery from covering their flank with fire.

Wellington had not been idle, and some redeployed guns pounded the Guard from the front, while Clinton piled in on their left. Much as in the historical battle, the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regt unleashed a devastating volley and then went in with the bayonet, shattering the Guard Chasseur Division.

La garde recule

On Turn 6, a concerted assault by Reille's corps against Alten above La Haye Sainte was unlucky to be narrowly repulsed. At that point we held two of the Objectives quite securely (La Haye and Plancenoit). But loss of the Guard cancelled one and meant we were losing. Reille was unlikely to reorder in time either to take Hougoumont or to give adequate support to take Mont St. Jean. The Allied line in front of MSJ was too strong to be breached frontally. There might just have been time and space for Milhaud and some of d'Erlon's troops to work round and take MSJ from the east to retrieve a draw, but it seemed improbable. We therefore conceded the game to the Allies.

Waterloo: it's a classic. After playing it twice this week I have more sympathy for Napoleon. He and Ney get criticised for not outflanking the Allied right; for devoting too much effort to taking Hougoumont; for uncoordinated and unimaginative frontal attacks. But actually the limited time and space make it quite difficult. I think Napoleon has options to weight his efforts left, right or centre, and any of the three could succeed. But it would need skilful handling and good fortune on the French side, plus probably some tactical errors and bad luck on the Allies' part, for the French to really beat the Allied army.

Looking forward to fighting it again at SOFO in October. Maybe some passing visitors to the museum will want to join in, don the cocked hat and show us how it should be done!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Victory conditions in wargames

I have said before that I don't care about winning wargames, it's just losing I can't stand. But of course winning does matter. Wargames are (usually) not collaborative games but competitive ones, simulating deadly conflict. In most of our games there are no lives at stake, only egos, but it's still a contest. Wargamers have a variety of motivations: the spectacle, the game action, the history all figure in some degree (see the results of the recent WSS survey). Some care deeply about winning, others aren't really bothered, but I can't believe there are many players who really don't mind if they never win.
Some winners get gold medals, others get Iron Crosses

So winning matters.
So we need ways to determine who has won.
So we need Victory Conditions.

Kill Them All!
An obvious way of deciding who has won is of course casualties, or as characterized by Bob Mackenzie in his fine essay on scenario design, "Kill them all"! Or, as it commonly appears in wargame rules, Army Break Points: some threshold level of losses at which an army is deemed to be broken and the player is deemed to have lost.

Now I am not a fan of Break Points. They can be a chore to keep track of, and it is not always obvious at a glance how close a force is to breaking. Destruction of the enemy as an end in itself doesn't really provide any focus or structure to the game. Most important of all, if we are talking about historical scenarios (and I vote that we should), quite often the destruction of the enemy force was an indirect object, rather than the direct aim.
[Edit: after a really good discussion on TMP, I need to rephrase that last sentence thus: 
"While the ultimate aim was often the destruction of the enemy force, the way this was usually achieved was by driving him off his chosen ground or by stopping him doing the same to you."]

Purple Heart Medal
The medal you don't really want to earn

Victory Point Menus
As complex as "Kill Them All" is simple, the opposite approach is a complete menu of Victory Points, in varying quantities, at various times, for various actions. So you might earn VPs for killing the enemy - but more for some units than for others - and for occupying locations - but more for some than for others, and possibly earn VPs each turn you occupy a given place - and VPs for various miscellaneous achievements (X units reach location Y by Turn Z). Such menus enable the most refined and subtle and perfect calibration. They are also, to me at least, dauntingly painful and distracting. I'd need a Staff Officer (Accounting) to help me through the game. 
(Nothing to do with VP Menus except the name.)

The menu of assorted different items is not without merit, of course. A mission such as "Get troops off the board", either to escape or to exploit/pursue, is quite a common one. I have used it myself a number of times, e.g., for Borny and Beaumont in the Franco-Prussian War, or at The Alma in the Crimea. But it is tricky to calibrate as a sole measure of success. Similarly, completion of some specific task may be relevant, such as to construct/destroy a bridge, or take/hold objective X by/until turn Y for a bonus point. This figures in my Froeschwiller FPW game, and in my Dybbol one for the Second Schleswig War. But it is not often applicable, and again there is the calibration issue.

Terrain Matters!
So if "Kill Them All!" is too brutally simple, and the VP Menu is too painfully complex, and specific task completion exercises are not always appropriate, what does that leave?

My view is that battles tend to happen where they happen for some geographical/terrain-related reason, i.e., terrain matters. (This is less so in ancient and medieval times, where the primary requirement of a battlefield tended to be that it should be sufficiently flat and open for primitive armies to deploy in a line, for a dull linear punch-up. But I'm not really interested in such tedious pre-Napoleonic scuffles, so let's ignore them. Here endeth my prejudiced and grossly generalising digression.)

In historical battles, terrain matters. Battles are about seizing or holding key terrain: dominant high ground, villages or towns that sit astride an important route, strongpoints that anchor a defensive line, locations that protect or expose a line of communications or axis of advance or escape. [Edit: again as a consequence of the TMP discussion, let me insert this: "The side that fails to hold or take the ground it needs often does so because it has suffered too much in men and morale. Possession of objectives at the end of a battle can serve as a simple proxy for the state of an army.] So in our wargames, ownership of these places should be the main and often the exclusive consideration in the calculation of victory.
 C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'Objectif

Seize the [Insert Geographical Feature Here]
My preferred formula is to have multiple objective locations on the battlefield, all of equal worth; and that at the end of the game, if one side holds sufficient objectives, it wins.

Multiple objectives are important. A game with a single objective - the bridge/town/hill in the middle of the table - is very limiting and can be painfully dull. I reckon the ideal number is about 4 to 6. This is few enough to keep track of easily and assess the situation at a glance. And so long as a side does not have to take them all to win, it allows multiple winning combinations, hence permits more variety of potentially successful plans and makes for a more interesting challenge as a game. Typically in our games there will be at least 3 objectives being seriously contested right to the last few dice of the game, with all three results - win, lose or draw - being possible to the very end, keeping things tense and exciting.

For my BBB historical scenarios, unless one of the commanders on the day egregiously stuffed up, I generally set a 'par score' at around the level the historical protagonists achieved. If the players achieve the par score, the game is a draw. I do feel it is important that a draw should be possible, when both sides have fought with similar levels of luck and skill and can walk away with honours even. Many of the most satisfying games we have had have been hard-fought draws, leaving the players eager to play again and try different schemes.


The Shape of the Terrain Dictates the Shape of the Battle
I don't know if that's a vaguely remembered quote from some military genius, or whether I just made it up. Either way it's obviously a profound insight. As far as our present discussion is concerned, it is certainly true that the locations of objectives will dictate the shape of a wargame and to a large degree determine where the fighting is going to happen.

What are the key points that you should choose as objectives? Like a lot of people this year, I've been looking at wargaming Waterloo and have recently written a BBB scenario for it with Vincent Tsao, so let's consider that as an example. The first question you have to ask is, what was the battle about? You could characterise it as Napoleon having to smash the Anglo-Dutch before the Prussians arrive. OK, looked at in that way you might say Army Break Point is the way to go. But view it from Wellington's side of the hill, and you can say that if the Anglo-Dutch can maintain a coherent defensive line until the Prussians arrive, they win. So we can pick Objectives that relate to the holding or breaching of that line.

Obvious places to pick as Objectives are Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, the Allied strongpoints, one of which held out, the other eventually falling to the French. "Aha!", you might say, "But that forces the French player to repeat the error of devoting undue effort to Hougoumont instead of bypassing it!" Fair enough. In that case, let's allow some reward for successfully bypassing, and make the town of Mont St.Jean, on the Allied line of communications in rear of their battle line, an Objective as well. "But wait!", you now cry, "All these Objectives are so far away from the Prussians that Napoleon can just ignore them!" Good point, I grant you. Well, Plancenoit, protecting Napoleon's line of communications, was bitterly contested until the end of the battle, so there is our fourth Objective.

On the day, the high point for the French was holding 2 Objectives, La Haye Sainte and Plancenoit. They lost both at the end, of course, but that was very late in the day; and there is a case for saying the French army was not as well commanded as its opponents on 18 June 1815. Let us therefore designate 2 as the par score for a draw. If either side holds 3 objectives at the end, it wins. These objectives should provide enough structure to the game for it to qualify as a refight of Waterloo, without straitjacketing the players into simply replicating the actual battle plans, flawed or otherwise. (The Waterloo game is scheduled for playtesting later this month, so we will soon find out whether it works.) 
Should have read the Victory Conditions properly

Variations on a Theme: Precious Units
There are many ways to refine the "hold X Objectives out of Y" formula. One which we also employed in the Waterloo scenario is to make preserving some vital troops or units an Objective. I have written scenarios where wagons, or precious cavalry brigades, or hospitals are assets to be protected (e.g., St Quentin, Kurudere, The Wilderness, The Chernaya). Not every battle offers scope for doing this, but it is very nice for adding flavour when appropriate. In the case of Waterloo, we wanted to make the French player a little cautious about using the Garde Imperiale. Any wargamer worth his salt in a one-off game is likely to try to make maximum use of these elite troops. To deter players from committing them on Turn 1 rather than husbanding them for a crucial moment as they should, we made the two main GI units - the Old Guard Grenadiers and Chasseurs - each worth an Objective to the Allies if they were reduced to Spent status. 
 Versatile Historical Quotes No.94:
"Merde!", said the French player

Variations on a Theme: Variable Objectives
There are battles where one side really doesn't know what the other is up to. This can be reflected with variable objectives. For my BBB scenario for Inkerman in the Crimean War, where the Russians emerged out of the fog and also used a diversionary attack, I let the Russians choose 1 of 3 Variable Objectives, alongside some fixed ones, to keep the Allies guessing until the VO is revealed halfway through the game.

There are also battles where a commander doesn't even know what his own subordinates are up to. Two of the most important  battles of the century are prime examples: Gettysburg and Koeniggraetz. At Gettysburg, the Union General Sickles notoriously decided he didn't like the position his corps had been given, and decided to adopt a more advanced one, with some adverse consequences. Similarly at Koeniggraetz in 1866, the Austrian commander Benedek had established a nice V-shaped defensive position complete with earthworks. Not one but two of his corps commanders felt anxious about high ground to their front and chose to advance and occupy it, dislocating the entire position.

In both cases, there were other significant pre-battle decisions that could have played out differently. At Gettysburg, the Union might have chosen to try to hold the town itself; and seriously considered a major attack against the Confederate left. At Koeniggraetz, there was an issue over how far forward the Austrians' Saxon allies should have their main position, and similar questions elsewhere along the Austrian front.

I therefore wrote the scenarios so that there were 3 or 4 Variable Objectives in each. Players know what these could be, but do not know which VO actually matters until partway through the game, after they have made their initial dispositions. This seems to work well as a way of reflecting unreliable subordinates' divergent assessment of what matters, without simply having a "Sickles Rule" that recreates the stupidity but not the uncertainty. 
"Well, General Sickles, maybe if you'd obeyed orders this wouldn't have happened."

Variations on a Theme: Objectives Triggering Events
Many large historical battles of the kind I like to fight fall into distinct phases, sometimes over several days (or weeks or even months). Terrain objectives often lend themselves nicely to recreating such phased operations. The capture of certain objectives can trigger certain events - or to put it the other way round, often an attacker cannot risk committing all of his force until some preliminary operation has been completed. Dybbol is a very good example of that: the Prussians must clear away Danish outposts before they can commence the seige and storm the redoubts; once they have stormed the redoubts, they can progress to the amphibious invasion of Als. Other instances of different kinds can be found in my scenarios for The Chernaya, Nachod et al, Aladja Dagh, Metchka-Tristenik, Katseljevo-Ablava, Chorrillos & Miraflores, etc., some of which you can find in the BBB Yahoo group files, others in "Bloody Big European Battles!".

I am not a competition wargamer. I like actual historical battles. For some years I was happy just to push the troops around on the table in a reasonably historical situation until it was time to pack up for the night, at which point I and my opponent might have a discussion about which of us had done a better job of carrying out his mission, but it was all a bit vague. In the past decade or so I have become convinced of the virtue and value of tightly framed scenarios with fixed turn duration and clear victory conditions, as an important part of the High Quality Gaming Experience. Ignoring casualty-counting in favour of having victory primarily determined by terrain objectives, occasionally leavened with some scenario-specific task, has proven to be a thoroughly satisfactory method, generating games that give good insight into the historical events and usually produce tense and exciting finishes.