Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Initial Thoughts Part 2

In part 2 of this initial description of Zouave, I’ll discuss the turn sequencing, and the key concepts of command treatment.

I have always had a strong interest in the treatment of time in wargames. I think it is the key to a game that truly offers a hint of the experience of war that is the most commonly discussed by those that have been in battle, and is the most ignored aspect by many a wargame design-the fear of the unknown and the inability to clearly see what is going to happen next. From a commander’s point of view, this feeling of not perfectly knowing the future is only slightly less true of his own troops, let alone the enemy. Alas,the vast majority of wargames have a fixed turn sequence that let’s both sides know EXACTLY what is happening next and plans are made and rule “gotchas” are set on the basis of this completely fanatastical foreknowledge. Clauswitz in his great thesis “Vom Krieg” addressed the unpredictable nature of battle quite thoroughly in his examination of “friction” in battle, which always makes the extent of action achieved variable, but also in his wonderful description of the play of events as being “most like a game of cards.”

These concepts are what prompted my key design features in Piquet. Piquet was quite different from what came before in that it didn’t just determine the sequencing of units, or their activation, but actually carved up the game sequence-in effect, made the flow of time and events unpredictable. This was unsettling to many gamers because it substituted a whole new range of artifices for illustrating the behavior of units on the table and created new game situations that were quite unlike the equally artificial constructs of the fixed sequence game. The difference was gamers had accepted the obvious absurdities of Artillery always firing before the infantry moved, or all units moving exactly the same distance, at the same point of the move, and their troops being able to predictably deploy before your cavalry could charge. They had not the same familiarity with the constructs of Piquet and that led, initially, to some ding-dong flame wars at the end of the 90s.

In the last 10 years the acceptance, and copying, of the Piquet concepts has been so thorough that many a game has bits of the Piquet DNA in their fabric.

The key to Piquet was the card deck which added this ability to break up an army’s move by type, terrain inhabited, and seamlessly inserted command failures, heroic moments, and, my favorite, “Dress lines” which was a lull in battle where nothing happened. A zen moment that was so seldom possible in other games. The cards also, in concert with the original impetus method, made the management of time and opportunity so focused, and impetus was so dear, that wargame armies began to mimic the same overall behavior of real armies-A good general concentrated on one area of the battlefield and made his move there, and not as so many wargames do, where the entire army advances and every sector is active. It provided a unique way of modeling different armies within a period. Piquet was, and is, a great game with unique and insightful portrayals of battle.

Piquet, however, was a highly tactical game. At most, both armies were a large division in numbers and size and not much more. This never hurt the game with wargamers since it did fit another widely accepted convention of the miniature tabletop wargame-the mini-division size. Twelve to sixteen units, a mixture of all arms, a historically low artillery battery count, and command and control at a single point( often the wargamer playing the troops). Most derivative designs from Piquet have continued this mini-division size and limitation. 90% of all wargames share this construct. Surely, the game was simplified by some, made more amenable to the convention scene, and the impetus swings were squeezed down to a near move-counter-move behavior, but the core strength of the design was sufficient to still yield a good game. It remained, essentially, a tactical, mini-division, single command level design.

When I began Zouave, I wanted to break out of the limitations of the original Piquet design and start to portray at least a hint of the revolution in warfare that came with the Army-Corps-Division implementation. This had been tried in the past, but led to rulebooks the size of phone books, tediously long turns, and, oddly enough, amorphous and unchallenging command decisions. Often these games either totally lost any sense of tactical color and combat, or instituted such laborious and convoluted tactical resolution (“See rule that one felt more like an accountant or a parent assembling a Christmas toy using Chinese instructions! They were often bad, bad games. The counter-reaction to these designs led to the blossoming of so many simple skirmish games, the mini-division designs, and GW style bucket of dice wargames. They were straightforward, with a limited number of units, simple die rolls, and were very conventional using almost identical game mechanics-you didn’t have to read the rules, even! Army lists made sure you didn’t have to read much history. As a group of historical designs they were only a bare notch above fantasy games such as GW, and often had only a thin veneer of history. The “big” games above the divisional size were decidedly out of fashion.

So, I had to find a way to say something about the role of army structure, use relatively large forces, and still have a good game, and tactical color. Though the rules would not be a single page, I had to avoid the telephone book syndrome. There’s a challenge! I certainly wanted to use the sequence card deck concept I introduced in Piquet, but it had to be less tactical and restrictive. I also wanted to avoid the need for gamers to buy anything beyond the rules, including cards, markers, etc. Using commonly available “tools” would make both the gamer’s life and mine-much easier and less costly. I wanted to retain Piquet’s lack of tables, but add some zest to the combat resolution. I also wanted to require a high level of hard decision making on all levels from command to Corps, to Division to regiment in the tactical battle. I decided that one of the best decades to base the game in is the 1861-1871 transition in warfare. The evolution of technology and the role of command are dramatically illustrated in these conflicts.

Zouave uses a standard 54 card playing deck with jokers. It uses standard multi-sided dice, with an emphasis on the D12 in movement. THe rule book minus the addenda, but with over 24 pictures, four illustrations, and four tables are only 32 pages long in manuscript. They cover four periods and a decade in which hundreds of battles were fought and was the transition from Napoleonic war to modern war.

Each army draws from a common shuffled deck. The two red suits are for army “A”, The two Black suits are used by Army “B.” In the red suits, the Diamonds allow commanders to act, execute divisional movement, and the movement of “independent” units. They allow rallies and facilitate the actions of the divisions. The hearts are impetus as it is used in many games for tactical units, which in Zouave allows regimental actions, the establishment of fire discipline, and engineering activities. Likewise, the other army uses Spades for command and clubs for lower level tactical action. Both decks can be crafted to model the strengths and weaknesses of either army in either the command functions army-corps-division, or the tactical combat area-regimental-battalion-battery. The available initiatives for both armies varies separately in the command and tactical areas, but is constrained by the nature of standard card decks to be roughly equivalent-thus removing the “It ain’t equal!” complaint. The player can use these initiatives anywhere he cares to, it is HIS choice which divisions and regiments are ordered to the attack, just as it was Lee’s choice that Picket’s division would be the one that charged. Both players may fire anytime they wish and may fire as often as they like-but with ever decreasing effectiveness-until the regimental command reestablishes fire discipline.

The pennies? Ah,yes! They are simply cheap, readily available markers, that track the flow of orders, information, and guidance down through the command chain from the commander to the divisions and on to the regiments. They are visible metaphors for command control and capability. They meet my criteria of being readily available, cheap, and easy to use. A gamer may, of course, substitute elaborate markers such as the magnet dials now appearing on the scene, or he may wish to craft a more dioramic treatment of the markers, but bottom line-he needn’t.

Later this week, I will comment on the puff-balls, fire discipline, and the unique treatment of firepower and close combat in Zouave. I will also give some hints on the introduction of the unanticipated into the game through the use of the Aces, the Jokers, and the optional POD deck.

Now back to editing the text and creating some additional graphics...