Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

The Theoretical Basis of Die Fighting

die Fightimng package

One of the great truisms of wargaming is that there are no bad or foolish war-game generals. No table-top general has ever been outfoxed as thoroughly as Mack during the Ulm Campaign, fought his troops as poorly as Hooker, was as incompetent as Bazaine in 1870. They may admit to being unlucky and rolling too many ones, or not getting the right cards in card activated games, but they would never admit to just being out thought and outfought.

In fact, most war-game designs that gamers find attractive, protect them in many ways from the embarrassment of just being soundly beaten. The rules provide many buffers, and layers, that allow them an “out” and excuse for the unfortunate outcome of a table-top battle. It is a long established tradition of wargaming for the analysis of the battle over beers that allows all sides the opportunity to claim bad luck, unfortunate timing, or an ill-written rules for any failures, and not themselves. The ultimate denial of responsibility for a loss is, of course, “The rules suck!”

The other truism is that many gamers want rules that constrain choices, and present a limited and unambiguous decision matrix. If they know the rule, and they apply it correctly, they want a predictable and expected outcome with tiny risk of variable results. They want to limit surprises, or the unexpected, as much as possible. They very much want to reinforce the advantages of knowing the arcane details of rules, and special application of a little known rules, so that their expertise and lawyer-like knowledge of the rulebook becomes a dominant factor is victory.

In my experience, war gamers may be the most risk-adverse people in the world!

All of his is totally unlike the actual experience of war that we find in reading their actual history, especially in the accounts of the actual participants as they are immersed in a battle’s unfolding narrative.

In my article on Piquet’s theoretical basis, I have previously discussed the many ways that gamers tolerate game conditions, especially the psychological conditions, that are totally at odds with the actual experience of command in battle. These range from helicopter views of the exact units on the table, their location, and movement, to obsessively limited and predictable combat outcomes (in the most extreme form this leads to the board game behavior of counting and stacking units to achieve the exact CRT odds that guarantee victory, much like a tax accountant calculates your tax bill). That article is still found on the Piquet website.

In Piquet, my design goal was to take gaming in a new direction that made the MANAGEMENT of unpredictability and surprise, and, yes, even unfairness and unequal opportunity, the prime goal of the gamer. It was not getting perfect odds, or making the perfect move with perfect intelligence, but in dealing with the vagaries of chance, estimations of threats, the inability to respond to every circumstance, the unfairness of the current situation and finding ways to turn events to your advantage and then to victory. This is what good generals do.

It also upset many gamers who had never in their lives actually managed anything, or any group of people. Gamers who had more of a desire to be a perfect general, with the limitation of risk to a mere die-roll here or there as a minimal concession to chance, and lacked any ability at seeing the big picture. They were detail people-details of buttons, weapons, and rule 12.0741 on page 58, not people comfortable with either ambiguity or abstraction. This was not surprising, since the last thing may people want is to be reminded of their actual capabilities, and instead, instead, be reinforced in an imaginary success and securing victories they seldom find in real life.

If anything, I was shocked at the number of people in wargaming that accepted the challenge in Piquet, and supported it so strongly. Even then, there was always a tendency to temper the pure distillation of the concept and make it “fairer” and to provide gamers with a more traditional move-countermove-equality of opportunity, and more limited range of combat outcomes. In more extreme forms, the variants became as rigid and obvious in their decision matrix as any other war-game and risk was once again relegated to a back seat. To use a metaphor I’ve used before; The Chess elements won out over the Poker elements in the design.

I see Die Fighting as a design to once again address the themes I started with Piquet, but from another direction. Instead of limiting opportunity for taking actions, as I did with the Sequence deck in Piquet, I came at the problem as one of limiting the degree of capability in taking each action, whether movement or combat, in Die Fighting.

Capability in war-games is usually measured in a few standard ways. When one can move a unit, how far one can move a unit, how much and how far a unit can project its effect on the enemy, and how well a unit can withstand that effect. Victory is usually determined by one army has either taken a certain stated objective, has eliminated the enemy, and/or his capability to reach his objectives.

In the simplest war-games, that capability is rigidly defined as I move-you move; Movement is rigidly stated as “Infantry moves 4” and Cavalry 12”” or something similarly stated, weaponry reaches certain points usually scaled to a stated able top scale, and has effect that is usually expressed as an attritional elimination of a figure or stand. In early wargaming the games were usually fought to the last man, until that became absurdly atypical of battle, and morale rules were introduced to allow units to rally, reconstitute, and reform and some sort of arbitrary loss ratio was created to declare one side a victor. Objectives were usually also simple; eliminate the enemy army on the tabletop.

Except, in every battle report by contemporary participants movement is not very predictable, distances covered are wildly removed from any sure D=T*D formula, weaponry performance, in all periods, is, while more predictable in the aggregate, is often extremely variable at the front line, often occurring at the extremes and not at the norm. Losses and retreats are on a local minor tactical level-NOT attritional, but sudden and immediate. Most of all the behavior of armies as a total force is not minutely controllable to either side, only less so to the losing side. Their orders may be specific. Their tactics may be drilled. The plan may be agreed to, BUT , as Clausewitz remarked, no plan remains unchanged beyond the first round fired.

In short, a mechanistic treatment of battle as found in all too many war-games misses the main, most obvious, aspects of battle in terms of confusion, human foibles and failures, the capability to manage variables, and the acceptance of risk. it builds a false impression of battle, that it is a formula, a mere assembly of assets and clever moves, that when perfectly done, leads to success. Learning the rules well becomes more important than managing often uncontrollable behaviors of individuals and units, and dealing with variables, both adverse and favorable, as they occur.

There are many ways these behavioral effects and variables may be portrayed in a war game design. Before I continue, I must remind any readers that I have a point of view. That does not make me right or those that prefer other solutions wrong-but it does determine what I choose to design and play. It is also true that, after 50 years of playing war-games, I’ve come to a point where i don’t have time for some aspects of gaming that are frankly just not that interesting to me. I will probably never play any miniature game that has a classic move-countermove turn structure, fixed movement rates, fixed turn sequences, or unlimited capacities for any of the above actions.

With that disclaimer, let me elaborate on Die Fighting.

Card Sequencing

I retained the concept of card sequencing first used in Piquet, but changed it noticeably. Card sequencing adds a great deal to every game that uses it. Foremost is the breaking up of time into sequences with varying degrees of unpredictability. It also allows the insertion of unique events. Where Die Fighting shines is the toolkit it gives in this area. Die Fighting has simplified the sequence deck into six elements that are constant in makeup, but allows a number of different uses of the deck for sequencing ranging from a near-conventional fixed sequence, to random sequencing, to mixtures of asymmetrical sequencing not seen in many other rules. It begs to be tinkered with, and provides some really clever means to illustrate the quality of command control of the entire army. It is simple, but the variations are very complex. I offer suggestions in the rules as to some period applications, as a guideline, but , depending on the scenario, nature of the competing armies, and for that matter, the number of gamers playing, any of the methods, plus some to be yet invented could be used.

This requires some thought by the scenario writer, and the gamers, but allows tailoring the game in some very exciting ways. It is the one area that many new gamers don’t think of as intently as I had hoped. My suggestions in DF are just that and not meant to be hard and fast dictates on which sequencing should be used. I am particularly fascinated with asymmetrical move sequences, where the two armies are not totally in sync in the move sequence. Aside from reflecting the chaotic narrative of most battles, it adds great drama to the game, while avoiding all sorts of movement “special Rules” found in many rules to deal with who moved first, or where in the move sequence units meet. Die Fighting makes that clear and certain.

Variable Movement

Rolling for distance moved is one of the primary variable limitations in capacity in Die Fighting. You never know the exact distance a unit may move. This means in the aggregate sou know about how far an infantry or cavalry unit, but because of everything from small fluctuations in ground not reflected on most tabletop billiard-like surfaces, but present on every battlefield, to small inefficiencies of training and command, the actual distance traveled will vary, sometimes exceeding all expectations, and other times falling miserably short. Die Fighting’s “Charge” Rule also makes the charge into physical contact by cavalry, or infantry less of a perfunctory thing, and open to both the glorious moment and the “high water mark” failure of a Picket.

Using distance as time, as the Rule of Six does, underscores the interrelation of those elements. Coupled with variable movement, mounting cavalry, dismounting, maneuvering, and deployment, all assume added risk and are not just a mechanistic surety.

Significance of Officers

Many war-gamers get so caught up in the details of weaponry, drill, and the often meaningless minute differences between armies (especially in the Horse and Musket era) that they accent these characteristics beyond all reason, and minimize the effect of the greatest single determinate of victory-the officer corps! Though Commanders in Chief get their due, many a rule set under-represents what I think is a chief determinate of victory the command structure, as represented by the officer corps-on the brigade level and the command level. Die Fighting does not. The use of the Command Dice is absolutely crucial to success. The Red resource dice are a fixed element in every action, the Green “Free” dice are the same for both armies in a given situation, BUT the command dice not only vary in amount, but are the key means for compensating for disadvantages, or insuring an advantage in a crucial actions. The placement of the command figures (and their dice) on the battlefield is key. Their judicious use within a turn is critical. No worse feeling than to have used up the command dice, just when you need them most. The use of the command dice for movement and morale is every bit as important as in combat. Movement uses are often not given the weight they should be by gamers, especially early in the battle when key objectives are to be gained.

These dice, coupled with the “personalities” given to officers, are key in initial deployments and the implementation of plans. Officers in DF are very important. Very important!

Catastrophic Effects on the Tactical Level

I hate attritional combat systems. I find war-games where the two forces lock grips and then push each other, over a voluminous number of die-rolls, back and forth a few inches, until one side loses “X” number of points, figures, etc. as excruciatingly boring. To be sure, many battles had some element of attritional combat-especially in attacks on towns, structures, or in sieges of forts, but most battles were far more fluid with a number of quick clashes at disparate points along an attack front, with much to and fro, until one side noticeably recoiled. They were seldom locked in combat-hand to hand - for any appreciable length of time, but engaged in separate distinct attacks-often quickly settled, that, in aggregate, determined whether one side o the other would advance. This is especially true of horse and musket periods and later.

Die Fighting handles this very well as the range of die results can be very wide, but with the ability to pay for minor loss with Resource dice, and the judicious use of Command dice, these extremes can be handled-for a while…But, eventually, a result that exceeds 6 will cause a noticeable retreat, and with the new Catastrophic Loss rule, a complete removal! The game delivers decisive results and not some muddling on of interminable combat. This is entirely consistent with the fact that a turn is scaled time and illustrates anywhere from a half-hour to hour of elapsed time and that most combat will have some sort of resolution on a local front in that time span.

This is achieved with no necessity for either figure or stand removal, except in the case of catastrophic loss of a whole unit.

The Diminution of Capability-Counter-balanced by Achievement of Objectives.

This is the primary innovation of Die Fighting. It is the source of the biggest misunderstandings and the loudest objections. It also, when properly implemented, is one of the few rules sets to capture a key aspect of battles, the exhaustion and loss of capability by one (or both) sides to carry on a battle.

First of all, YOU DO NOT NEED HUNDREDS OF DICE! A simple Chessex “box” of 30 for the Yellow, Black, and Green mini dice will do for the non-resource dice. even as few as 50 red resource dice would be fine for each side, but with the use of a dice roster for the red dice, as few as a dozen resource dice a side would do. I, personally, like the convenience of each side having 100 or 150 dice in a “bucket”per side ( A cost of less than $30 from Amazon). It is also very satisfying to hear dice being lost by the enemy.

What the dice do is put a limit on capacity to offer battle for the entire army. In a way they represent the energy, morale, and casualties of the army in one common measure. They put a price on every movement, every decision to offer battle, every troop that is rallied. Every action costs something of the army infrastructure, until a point is reached that the army can do no more. This is seldom handled by other rules other than as an arbitrary number or morale point. What those approaches lack, that Die Fighting possesses, is a sure linkage between decisions to take actions, whether movement, combat, or morale and an immediately observable cost.

If a commander is too unfocused in his attacks and moves about willy-nilly and attacks targets that are not critical to victory, he is the equivalent of a wastrel spending his father’s wealth, until there is no more. He will run out of capacity before his opponent and lose. The Die Fighting Resource Dice concept imposes a gradually increasing cost to every action and every decision, that over the game, if done unwisely ,will leave him at a great disadvantage to an enemy that is focused, economical in his use of force, and measured in his commitment of units. These are the basic tenets of commanders throughout history! It also is hard to escape the consequences of our decisions.

It does require balancing the expenditure of resource dice by an attacker with a reward of dice for capturing objectives and destroying enemy units. That is, the attack costs more dice than the defense in most situations (if for no other reason than the attacker is spending dice to move forward), so he must be rewarded for they endeavor by dice being returned to him by the taking of an objective. As with most battles, a number of local objectives taken, gradually contribute to the battle being won.

I call this establishing a rate of exchange in the battle scenario. It has been the part of Die Fighting that needs the most exploration and the most thought. In the original rules i offered some suggested rates of exchange, that were not sufficient, or interesting enough, when tested over time in our games. I have considerably fleshed this area out in the article found in the yahoo! sites file section “Die Fighting Materials”on Rules for Objective Placement and Values. This is getting very close to the mark. The area is not one that is easily codified for every battle scenario, and requires a bit of art as well as science, but one soon gets a sense of the proper value assignments and placement after a game or two. The ability for some creative people to create inventive objectives and their values is a very intriguing aspect of the rules. In the WSS period, for instance, I added the moving objective of the train to the defense objectives.

The best effect is that a definitive end to the game is provided by the empty bucket of the losing side, unless the inevitability of that outcome is such that an earlier concession is made.

The Crafting of Battles

The above section hints at the amazing capacity of Die Fighting to craft a battle scenario. By the judicious choice by the scenario designer of the Card Sequencing method for either or both sides, the number of objectives in either player’s zones or the neutral zone, the assignment of their multiple values, and the valuation of the commanders and their number, he can use far more subtle and effective means of crafting the game experience for the gamers involved than just the number and rated quality of units, and the placement of terrain that most rules allow. Die Fighting does this with a minimum of special rules in play, very few tables or special rules, and fairly straightforward and simple game mechanics.

Die Fighting is an open invitation to creative scenario designers. I intend to do an additional blog entry on the differences between one on one or two on two game play and large group gaming with DF-along with a small 1 on 1 game battle report in the next few days.