Sergio's blog: hints, ideas, pictures and news about SDS (and more) from the author

Friday, March 29, 2013

Multiple Turns Orders

Inspired by a hint of Dale (thanks mate) here is another subject that I studied a lot with the aim of creating a good system. The concept is quite straightforward: if you are forced to give your units an order that lasts for several turns, you get many advantages from the point of view of game design. You get a high level of fog of war (you still see enemy troops, but you don’t know where they will be – say – 3 turns later) and completely bypass many of the problems outlined in my previous posts about Orders.
When I approached this problem I started studying two old games (RoboRally and Blue Max) and a relatively new game (Wings of War/Wings of Glory).

RR is a boardgame where robots move on a board and shoot each other while trying to reach a Finish Line passing through several check points (a sort of regatta). Players have cards to plan their moves and must allocate 3 consecutive cards (maneuvers) for each turn, laying them face down on the table. Then first card is flipped and all movements are performed. After some shooting (automatic, they are Robots!) players flip the second card, and so on. After the third card a new planning phase begins. A square grid regulates movement.

Blue Max is a game of WW I Air Combat, played on a hex grid. Each plane, according to its features (speed, climbing rate, and the like) has a card where all possible maneuvers are listed with a code. Each turn players are required to choose secretly a code and then reveal it at the same time. Planes move and then fire if allowed to (Arc of fire, range). I don’t remember right now how many moves you had to plot in BM, but that is not important.

The “son” of these 2 games is the famed “Wings of War” (now “Wings of Glory”) which covers both WW I and WW II Air combat. With minor differences, both periods have a plotting phase (2-3 cards) and then moves are resolved. The big difference from RR and BM is that WoW does not use a grid. The “move cards” are a sort of template that you position in front of your airplane, then move it beyond the card at a certain point printed on it.

It seems easy to adapt the same concepts and mechanics to miniature wargaming, but there are some (minor?) drawbacks. First of all, this system requires the use of cards: other means are too complicated. It also requires, in my opinion, the use of a grid as it is not suited for linear games. The variable frontage of a unit (according to its formation) does not allow the use of card templates like in WoW, and the different speed of the units (infantry, cavalry and artillery) would force the producer to print many, many cards. Finally, a game like this would require a lot of SPACE: if – for each unit capable of moving – we have to put on the table 3 face down cards, much of the surface would be crammed with cards (even if they are small).
So, if you have nothing against cards and grids, and have a lot of space, there could be a solution. More about this soon….

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The M&M syndrome

Continuing this series of post about some game design concepts, I’d like to talk about the dreadful M&M syndrome, where M&M means “Markers & Modifiers”.
The syndrome affects many game designers and has two major consequences on the related games: a) 50% of your wonderful terrain, for which you spent money and remarkable effort - building from scratch hills, trees and houses - is covered by papers with CRT tables and modifiers; b) your miniatures are almost invisible under a flood of markers (Disorder level, Fatigue, Losses, Orders, Moved this turn, Morale status, Hidden unit, Overwatch and so forth..).
Those of you who played my games know my idiosyncrasy  about markers: every time I am forced to introduce a marker in a game I perceive it like a personal defeat, therefore I try all possible alternatives before doing so.  
It goes without saying that it is no easy task. If you want to avoid bookkeeping (another idiosyncrasy), casualty removal AND markers you are in trouble.  
Many times I asked myself if I’m too “integralist” on this subject: in the end, most players/games out there do not even consider this as a problem, so I could avoid to squeeze my brain in order to find a solution, but it’s stronger than me .  Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose: but in DSLB I succeeded in limiting them to 1-2 (DIS level and reaction) in SDS just one (loaded/discharged weapon).

Modifiers are another crux desperationis for me. In my mind, they should be so few, that after 2-3 times you refer to the table, you must be able to remember ALL OF THEM easily.
I start to pack them all under 3 major groups: troop quality and quantity, terrain advantage and leadership. Then I write down as many of them as I can figure out. When the list is finished, the real work (eliminate them and including them somewhere in the game mechanics) starts. One key factor is to avoid double jeopardy modifiers, i.e. those that penalize twice (or reward twice) units. Sometimes they are very subtle but if you watch carefully, you should find some in many rules sets out there.
Modifiers must also be intuitive, possibly (but this is difficult) all “up” or “down” and – possibly again – should not require complicated math: only additions or subtractions. You may add one multiplication, not more and only if unavoidable. Much better if you just ADD physical elements (dice for instance) and do not add to the dice result. This is particularly true if you roll many dice.
One final note: do NOT indulge to sporadic aspects or situations, nor try to represent everything with modifiers. If the bugler of the 354th Fringibuffo Lancers once killed 15 enemies just using the trumpet at the Battle of Zippoflex, don’t give “+1” to trumpeters (as many gamers would require you to do)….
Comments are – as usual – welcome.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Orders (chapter 2)

Continuing on the previous subject, I wanted to include in my SYW game "Drums & Tricornes" an order system (this was exaclty 1 year ago) and faced the problems already mentioned.
Not being able to solve all the issues, I decided to bypass one: namely the "object" of the order (the target of an attack, the destination of a maneuver, and the like). Rather, the order gives the unit its general attitude (don't know if this is the correct word in english). Once cleared the path from this obstacle, I wrote several micro-sets of rules for each single Order type, namely what a Brigade MAY and MAY not do under this or that order. To further depict this attitude, also the movement allowance is different and formation is strictly regulated. I must add that Drums & Tricornes is an area wargame (the table has a square grid on it) to get rid of all troubles connected with linear movement and measurements (see my previous post).
I know it's easier to do this job for SYW (a mainly - if not exclusively - linear period), but I hope that if this solution works, maybe I can find some tweaks also for other periods.
So basically, instead of trying to write a rule encompassing all possible situation, I wrote more micro-rules in a format that can be printed in a single card (poker style). The format is something like:

Brief Description.
MP: (Movement points)
Type of movement allowed: (forward, backwards, oblique and the like..)
Who can order it: (CinC or brigade Commander)
Formation allowed: (self explaining)
Change Formation: (allowed, not allowed, limited)
Change face: (cost in MP)
Combat Effects : (advantage, disadvantage)
Difficult Terrain (cost in MP and/or Fatigue)

I did not (intentionally) limit - just to mention one - the number of attacks that a Brigade may perform (a Brigade is made of several Battalions). It is just the combination of MPs, formation allowed and what you may do that forces units to perform according to the order. To make an example: if you have a HOLD order and want to maneuver, you can do that, but very, very slowly.
If the situation becomes really critical (due to an order which is difficult - if not impossible - to fulfill) the Brigade Commander may invoke  "Self-Defense" and break the rules (with consequences, of course).

I also added a simple method to send Orders almost secretly (your opponent knows that your CinC has sent out 2 orders but don't know to whom) and a brief sub-phase of order comprehension.

As I said in my previous post, this is not THE solution, but could be a reasonable start.
BTW, it seems to work (and to be fun).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Orders in Wargame rules (Horse & Musket)

The mechanics that regulate Orders (in the pre-radio era) are always a nightmare for the Game Designer. Basically, what we want to represent is what a Commander may and may not do when he is under a certain Order from his Superior. We will skip for the moment the order comprehension by the subordinate, and concentrate on the “MAYs” and “MAY NOTs”. Let’s take a typical “set” of basic orders: ATTACK, DEFEND, MANEUVER, HOLD and start from the top of the list.
ATTACK: Your CinC wants you (his subordinate general) to attack an enemy unit, defending a hill. Within the above set of orders this is the most offensive order, so everything seems simple: you have to attack your target, i.e. move your troops to engage the enemy to annihilate it or force it to abandon the position (and carry it). So you cleverly move your – say – 6 units of infantry at full speed towards the target, and sooner or later you’ll engage the enemy.
There’s always a BUT, because battlefields are rarely empty, or one Vs. one affairs. There is Artillery threatening, Cavalry lurking behind hillcrests or woods, strong enemy units in reserve. So it happens that while you boldly move towards your target the local situation changes (an 8” pdr battery unlimbers just in front of the target) and your attack seems doomed.  You desperately need an Order change from the CinC but it will take time (turns) and in the meantime that battery will cut your units in pieces.

In this situation, I think that 1 player out of 10 would carry on the order (and have his command slaughtered) while the other 9 would REFER TO THE RULES. Why? Because they want to check what they are allowed to do when under an attack order they don’t want to execute anymore.
And here the can of worms opens….
Some rules don’t say anything about this, so in principle you are free to do what you want. You apply the concept: “if the rules don’t say it is not allowed, you can do that”. Your opponent will not agree, however.
Some rules try to stop the flood with a spoon, stating that “under an attack order, units must advance towards the target”. How many units?  How many inches? You may fulfill the order moving ahead 1 unit of less than 1 inch…  
OK, let’s rephrase the rule: “under an Attack order, all units must move towards the enemy at full speed”.
A rather drastic rule that players will not like (“I don’t like suicide rules. I’d like to have an option”).
Mmmmhh… try this: “under an Attack order, more than half of your units must move towards the enemy at full speed”. Problem solved…..? Nope, for two reasons: rounded up or down? (this is easy) and “what does moving towards the enemy means”? If I’m allowed to wheel or oblique, for instance, I could make all sort of evolutions, spending  inches as I go, so that at the end of the movement, my units used up their movement allowance, even if they are just ¾ of an inch nearer to the enemy than before.
Giving a proper definition of moving toward the enemy could help.
What about this: “under an Attack order, more than half (rounded up) of your units must move towards the enemy at full speed, wheeling only once and using the most direct route to the enemy. Oblique movement is forbidden”.
Even so, the most direct route can be an argument, and there is another problem: changing formation.
If your game has formations (most Napoleonic games do) you must be allowed to change formation in order to attack, but at the same time you must be prevented from doing it too much. A common trick in fact is to change formation several times  per turn in order to decrease the movement allowance of your units. It is so common that many game designers specify that “consecutive, unnecessary formation changes are not allowed”. This (apparently) simple rule becomes more and more complicated… Sharp gamers could also have noticed another potential bug when it comes to moving “towards the enemy”. Which enemy? “The one in front, it’s obvious..” you would say. Nope, it’s not. Because in linear games (i.e. those not using hexagonal or square grids) quite often you have more than one enemy around, and it can be difficult to determine which one is in front of another. Should we try with the “nearest enemy”?
“Under an Attack order, more than half (rounded up) of your units must move towards the nearest enemy at full speed, wheeling only once and using the most direct route to the enemy. Oblique movement is forbidden and consecutive, unnecessary formation changes are not allowed.” Sounds good?
Not so much. Who is the nearest enemy? If I have 6 units in my Command maybe the leftmost unit has enemies belonging to command X nearby, while the rightmost units may have enemies belonging to command Y just in front and near. Who is the enemy?
I could go on for hours.
Now multiply the problems above for each other order (Defend, Maneuver, Hold) and I think you’ll realize that – in a competitive environment – it is simply impossible to use such an Order system unless you write a 100 pages chapter about it. And please don’t tell me that you are not so competitive. Maybe you are not, but I’m sure there is a rules lawyer in your group, and the problem will pop up.
The vast majority of the wargame  rules out there simply ignore this problem, even in good faith: many rules are the result of years and years of Wargaming in a Club where people is always the same and – little by little – some conventions take over, so that no one is arguing about this or that rule. It is so because…. It has always been so.  Many, though, ignore the problem because they are not able to solve it.
So there is no solution. Probably not, but maybe… slightly changing the angle something can be done. If you are interested follow up (and comment) …

Playing something different

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading some posts in the Napoleonic section of TMP and I was caught by a post from Steve who briefly described the main features of SNAPPY NAPPY with some enthusiasm.
Curious, I decided to buy it and give it a try.
Got the paper copy form Caliver, read the rules twice, and tried it (first solo then with my friend Diego).
The Solo Game

I quickly organized two armies: French and Russian. I took the OB of the Russian Campaign for the 2 French Corps and some random Russian Corps from the rules. Forces were unbalanced but that's what I wanted. I made a super-basic terrain (see above) took my measuring sticks in inches, and a fistful of d10 and I was ready to play this "Ultrafast" (as it says in the book cover) rules.
Well, before that to be honest I had to write down  the OB of both armies on a scratch paper, prepare some sort of markers for the orders, and identify all units on the battlefield with a number (or some color coding).
This is because one of the key of the game is a sort of fog of war caused by the fact that you mark off the "steps" of your units when you take hits (and fail Morale tests) but your opponent does not necessarily remember which unit is Firm, Disrupted or in Panic.
I will not describe the rules any further here, I'll just stress the second key of the game: the Morale checks.
When one of your unit takes a hit, you have to check its Morale until you pass or rout. This means that if you fail, you test again and again. That's why the game is said to be Ultrafast: in principle, you may lose a unit just taking a single hit (if you fail 5 times).
Above, the situation after turn 1: the armies are approaching each other. 2 quite big French Corps on this side of the table, and 3 small Russian Corps on the other side, plus a Cavalry Division and a reserve of grenadiers. With the exception of the 2 features mentioned above (secret OBs and Morale checks) all other game mechanics are quite standard (Command radius, Orders, linear movement, modifiers).
Situation after turn 2: armies are almost at Artillery range (9"). Units (Brigades) are made of 2 stands with the exception of Artillery which is 1 stand only. As I have no guns based individually, I improvised a bit.
A stand represent 2000 infantry, 750 cavalry and 24 guns.
Situation after turn 3: first gunshots, first blood. A Conscript Russian Units showed the ultra-fastness of the game, routing after a single artillery hit. First lesson learned: use Conscripts (and Militia, that is even worst) wisely.

Situation after turn 4: some musketry (1" range) and melee. Units that are charged may fire defensively, charging units may not fire. Note that in this game Cavalry fires musketry (but you need a 10 on a d10 to score a hit).
Situation after turn 5: Russians are in "All out Attack Mode", but French line holds. Russian losses mount. Orders (Attack, Probe, Screen, Maneuver, Defend, Withdraw, Rally) limit what your units may do on the battlefield but - as usual - they are a problem if you play competitively. The rules are a kind of guideline, but may be subject to hundreds of different interpretations.
  Situation after turn 6 (final): after 3-4 more Russsian units routed, I decided that it was over. General Barclay de Tolly called off the attack, and night fell. The rules do not specify any set of Victory condition.
Even considering that I played solo, often referring to the rules and that it was a first game, I did not feel this game to be ultrafast. Maybe the movement rules slowed the game down a bit: they are quite conventional, linear, with pro-rata modifiers for difficult terrain and 1/2 movement to about face (but only 1/3 to change formation !!!). One thing is for sure: once your units are engaged, they deteriorate quickly. And that is OK for me.
In general, a good set of rules if you play friendly games with low competition level players.
Many rules are simply missing (voluntary interpenetation, Generals movement, Victory conditions, Corps Morale), other are undefined at best (Orders).
A plus is that you can probably organize BIG GAMES with many players involved.
Comments are welcome!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rules I own

Making some order in my gaming room I decided to record the rulebooks I have.
Here's the list...

Key: Title (year) Publisher Language
Texas (1986) Ars Militaris Italian
Sixty One Sixty Five (2010) Ganesha Italian/English
A Union So Tested/Look Sarge no charts (2009) LMW Works English
ACW Rules (1988) Active Service Press English
Steam, Iron & Tin [naval] (1990) Minifigs English
Fire & Fury (1990) Quantum Printing English
Regimental Fire & Fury (2010) Fire & Fury Games English
ACW Solitaire (2007) David Kershaw English

Hex Command: Ancients (2006) ? English
Ancients Battle Cry (?) ? English
Skjaldborg (2000) Shieldwall Games English
De Bellis Renationis (1997) Wargames Research Group English (+3 Army lists books)
De Bellis Antiquitatis (1995) Wargames Research Group English
De Bellis Multitudinis (1995) Wargames Research Group English (+1 Army list book)
Impetus (2008) Dadi & Piombo Italian
Anticamente (2010) TB Line Italian

Nemesis (1997) Oberon Italian
OG (1997) Oberon Italian
Battlevacch (1997) Oberon Italian
Song of Blades & Heroes (2007) Ganesha Italian/English
Fear & Faith (2009) Ganesha English
Song of Wind & Water (2008) Ganesha English
Song of Deeds & Glory (?) Ganesha English
Song of the Splintered Lands (?) Ganesha English
Song of Arthur & Merlin (2008) Ganesha English
Song of Gold & Darkness (2007) Ganesha Italian/English
Mutants & Death Ray Guns (2008) Ganesh Italian/English

Section d’Assault (1999) Vae Victis French [WW II]
Flames of War (2009) Battlefront English
Operation Squad WW II (2010) Overlord Italian
Maurice (2012) Sam Mustafa Publishing English [SYW]
Form Line of Battle (2007) A&A Game Engineering English [Naval Age of Sail]
Fields of Honor (1994) Pinnacle English [Colonial]
Beyond the River Don (?) Red Actions English [Russian Civil War]
Blue Max (1995) GDW English [WW I Air Combat]
Steel Giants (1990) House Rules [WW II Tank combat]

Empire V edition (1990) The Emperor Press English
Cold Steel and Canister (2008) Decker Games English
Die Fighting! (2011) Repique Rules English
Shako (1995) Quantum Printing English (+ Fields of Glory Supplement)
Shako II (2008) Quantum Printing English
Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (2009) On Military Matters  English
Le Feu Sacré (?) Two Fat Lardies English
General de Brigade (2006) Partizan Press English
Snappy Nappy (2009) On Military Matters English
Napoleonic Command (1997) Crusader Games English
En Cul a les Anglais (?) ?? Italian
Wellington in India (1995) CSG Publications English
Napoleonic Wargaming (2009) History Press English
Sharp Practice (2008) Two Fat Lardies English
Piquet – Master Rules for Wargaming (2004) Piquet English
Piquet - Les Grognards (2004) Piquet English
Polemos Napoleonic General de Division/General de Brigade (2008) Baccus English
Corps Command (2008) Hoplite Research English
Song of Drums & Shakos (2008) Ganesha Italian/English
More Drums & Shakos (2009) Ganesha Italian/English
Drums & Shakos Large Battle (2012) Ganesha Italian/English
Lasalle (2009) Sam Mustafa Publishing English
Black Powder (2010) Warlord Games English
Short Attention Span Napoleonics (2003) Arthur F. Ross English
Marching to Glory (2001) Chris Leach English
Grognards & Grenadiers (?) Rudy Geudens English
Napoleonic Master II (2006) MB Hildreth English
The Age of Eagles (2004) Wilbur Gray English
En Avant! (2007) Jim Wallman English
En Avant! En Masse (2008) Jim Wallman English
Marescialli di Napoleone (?) Riccardo Affinati Italian
Cannoni, Sciabole e Moschetti (?) Home Rules Italian
Legion d’Honneur (?) ARSM Italian
Napoleonic Fury (2001) David R, Bush English
Elan Deluxe (2004) Phillip A. Jones English
Capitàn (2012) Capitan Games English
De Bellum Napoleonica v1 (2001) KISR English
De Bellum Napoleonica v2 (2002) KISR English
Napoleon’s Battle (authorized translation) (2007) Avalon Hill/Luridoteca Italian
Muskets & Moustaches (?) Lord Ashram English
L’Ombra dell’Aquila (?) House Rules Italian
Fast Play Grande Armèe (2005) Sam Mustafa English
Paintingshed Napoleonic Rules 3.0 (?) ?? English
Aquile per l’Impero (?) ?? Italian
Vive l’Empereur! (?) ?? Italian

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Old Campaign Map

Several years ago, when I lived in Bologna, I used to organize many Campaigns (from 4 to 8 participants).
I managed these Campaigs with basic methods and devices (written orders on paper, sporadic use of e-mail) but it was more than 10 years ago...
Moving some pics from my smartphone to Dropbox, I found the pic below.

It is the only pic I have from the last Campaign I organised here in Terni (when I had a group to play with): it shows the master map I used (yes, it is 1812 in Russia :-). As far as I remember, 6 players took part in this game. I conceived a nice and easy system for orders transmission, a system that allowed me to participate and not only Master the campaign. Once a week we met on Skype (chat) and we declared our orders, starting with myself. Three turns (approx. 6 days of campaign time) had to be planned and declared, so that the fog of war was still quite high (it was impossible to change the orders once written and shared on Skype).
When 2 Forces met in a point, a battle ensued.
We used a simplified combat system (DBN like) and fought the battle during the week, so that on the next monday we were ready for a new strategic phase (orders).
This was - and still is - the only Campaign played by my - former - group and the only long term activity that was finished (with a Russian Victory btw.....).