Friday 7 September 2018

Changing situations mid-game

One of my regular gaming buddies is a rare fence-straddler. He plays our BBB historical battles, but because of his love of ECW, he also participates in the other half of the club that only plays ancient/renaissance tournament games. You'd think he'd know better by now, as he routinely confirms my prejudices. Of his last three tournament outings, after the first he complained about the petty-minded rulemonger who made the game miserable; the second was a multi-player line-out in which he was utterly bored because his flank had nothing to do; then this week he lost because the dice were against him and, as he and his opponent agreed, he "had only one tactical option and there was nothing else he could do".

Nothing else he could do: he had one decision to make at the start of the game, and even that wasn't much of a decision. How damning! How dull!

"I had only one tactical option and there was nothing else I could do."

Whereas our game of the same night could not have presented a greater contrast. Yes, it was a historical battle; yes, it was mid-19th century; yes, it was BBB. But this one stood out head and shoulders even above most of our BBB games for sheer variety and excitement.

The battle was our second go at Pered (1849) from the Hungarian War of Independence, which I described in an earlier post as a kind of Hungarian Waterloo. As I said about it then:
"While it is primarily a frontal push channeled between two rivers, the threat of Hungarian interventions from flank and rear keeps the Austrians on their toes, and in tonight's game the flank threat became real and turned an Austrian win into a draw. Both sides have some interesting options about how and when to reinforce, and the two night intervals allow redeployment and change the shape of the battle. The early turns are really crucial; if the Hungarians enjoy good fortune early on (tonight we didn't), they can get a serious numerical advantage mid-game before the Russians arrive."

This captures the essential point: the game was continuously interesting because the situation kept changing. Not only that, we knew it would change, there was some uncertainty about how it would change, but we also had some influence over how it changed. Each change gives new opportunities to seek victory or retrieve potential defeat, and helps to make for a game with some ebb and flow - instead of a game like my tournament buddy's that is just ebb.

Of course, the game-changing flank march is a staple of the ancients tournament game too. Occasionally I do hear one of my tournament gamer comrades exult over a successful flank march or despair over one's failure. These obviously do provide one mid-game situation change and double the number of interesting decisions to be made.

And of course, having reinforcements turn up during the course of a game is a common feature of many a historical scenario, regardless of ruleset. Again, these will change the situation and prompt moves in reaction.

But what was distinctive about our Pered game was that there were multiple such events, of different kinds, and that players had the power to influence whether and when these happened, and in one case affecting the enemy's arrivals.

The scenario has two "Night Intervals", which are opportunities to rally, recover and redeploy. The first reinforcements arrive during NI 1. If the Hungarians can take three objective villages by Turn 4 (nightfall), that's huge, as they then get a second corps crossing a river and joining the game in NI 1, rather than tardily in NI 2 as it did historically. In our game they achieved this.

The Austrians have an opportunity to up the ante in response. While they do get some reinfs in NI 1, they will still be heavily outnumbered on Day 2 if they lose Day 1. They had a force under Perin away to the north covering a river crossing against the Hungarian I Corps. Historically, Perin was brought down in NI 2 and I Corps never reached the battle. In the game, the Austrians can gamble by bringing down Perin in NI 1, but at risk that I Corps may start turning up in their rear later in the game. (We chickened out of taking that risk; we lost in the end, so maybe we should have gambled.)

On the Hungarian side, there is also the option of presenting a flank threat. Historically, one brigade demonstrated briefly against another river crossing from the east, but never crossed. The Hungarians can commit one brigade to that mission with a chance that it will eventually cross. In this week's game it didn't, but in our first playtest crucially it did and enabled the Hungarian players to salvage a draw.

The most interesting games are the ones with the most decisions to make. Games where the situation changes significantly tend to present more interesting decisions. Consequently those scenarios with night intervals when significant fresh contingents arrive, and/or those with reinforcements turning up, preferably from various directions, tend to be the most fun games, especially those where player's actions can affect where/when reinfs arrive. I thought back over the many BBB scenarios we have done that fit this bill and list a few of them here:

Crimean War:
Inkerman - halfway through the game, the second half of the Russian army appears out of the fog. A cracker.
The Chernaya - half the Russian army isn't allowed to move until the Russians gain a foothold across the river. Makes for a bitter contest of the crossing.

1859 Italian War:
Montebello - the one I always recommend to new players. Aggressive French charges can deter tentative Austrians from committing reinforcements.

1866 Austro-Prussian War:
Langensalza - advancing Prusssians can deter Hanoverians from crossing the river.
Nachod et al - if the Prussian corps do not reach specified objectives by nightfall, they must retire 12" (as Bonin did historically).

1870 Franco-Prussian War:
Mars-la-Tour - mayhem as both sides fling reinforcements into the fray from all directions.
Loigny/Poupry - ditto.

1877 Russo-Turkish War:
Aladja Dagh - the Russians must achieve specified Early Successes by nightfall, otherwise they have to fall back 12" from the enemy and regroup.
Metchka-Tristenik - the two sides' positions at nightfall affect where the Turkish reinforcements may deploy overnight.
Katseljevo-Ablava - the Turks have to take a Russian outpost before they can unleash the second half of their army to cross a river.

American Civil War:
Gettysburg, of course! - two Night Intervals in which major reinfs arrive; positions held at nightfall affect deployment areas; US option not to withdraw Buford's cavalry after Day 1, but at risk of losing the (off-table) cavalry action at East Field and having Confederate cavalry show up in the rear.
Chickamauga - multiple reinfs from various directions
The Wilderness - ditto

There are more, and I could go on, but this list is sufficient to be illustrative. Moral of the story: if you want plenty of ebb and flow, play games that have major situation changes built in, preferably several, preferably from several directions, preferably with the players having some influence over them. The next scenario I'm working on, for the Second Battle of Komarom, should meet some of these criteria. Happy gaming!

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