Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

The Most Unrealistic Thing About Wargames-except DF, of course!


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Last Saturday we played a Franco-Prussian Wargame set in 1870, using my 10mm FPW armies (an AAR to be posted in the next few days). Near the end of the game we had the usual post-mortem “If only, and then, and but for that...” discussion. At the table was a player that seldom had played DF before who made a comment that only a fresh set of eyes allows. He said that he was surprised that no units had been removed, and all the original figures and troops were on the table, but they had by virtue of dice loss-lost the game. They were under pressure in several areas by the enemy, and had definitely taken the worst of it, throughout in die loss and-by the rules-they were forced to leave the field and admit defeat because one of their dice buckets was empty. He said he’d never seen a game like that before-no stacks of enemy troops on a small side table, no fractured and incomplete units on the table.

It was a great thought provoking moment for me. Most of the group had been playing DF for several years, and, even with the continued development and rule adjustments that come from continued play, had been so close to the game that they had never commented on this phenomenon.

I thought for a moment about other war-games, and sure enough, most games as they progress see numerous figures removed from the tabletop. They see the level of losses and visual removal that few generals in history, especially after the medieval period, ever saw. Not that it couldn’t happen (see Culloden), but it seldom did. In most cases, most units of an army retired off the battle field and even those units that had taken significant losses survived-with new recruits-to fight another day.

The curse of miniature war-games from day one has been the Custer’s Last Stand approach of fighting to the last unit or man on the table. In the early period, up to the 1970s, this was accepted as the nature of wargaming and 70-100% percent losses were common, with the only matter of discussion being who was left standing-who “won”?

I always thought it odd that gamers who paint figures with such care, and , when completed look so glorious, never regretted removing them from play and sight so sanguinely!

In the1970s and 80s, gamers and rule designers responded to this obvious absurdity by creating all sorts of morale rules, that prevented combat, limited combat, or, when all else failed, required retreat when certain conditions were created. There was also a resort to combat rules that led to staunchly attritional and grinding results. In short, games took hours, losses were limited and retreats required that, by rule, forced units off the table. These games were often painful grinding matches and often decided at the local pub after the game in spirited debate as to who “could have won” if the game only went on for five more hours!

In the 90s, new approaches were, thankfully, tried. These new rules deliberately defeated the carefully crafted equilibrium of movement opportunity, balanced forces of troops, and slow and easily answered attacks, with a wide variety of effects which decreased predictability and rewarded perceptive analysis of the battlefield. This effect was created with cards, less predictable combat results, greater mobility of units on the tabletop and “indirect” morale rules. By indirect, I mean that the effect of morale was taken out the player’s hands, and often tracked not by combat loss on an immediate basis, but by an accumulation of effects in a way that was not easily tracked by the opponent or open to player control. This was also an era that introduced the infamous roster with boxes to be checked off, as a substitute for troop removal. Not a bad idea, but checking off boxes is best left to Bingo players, and many gamers forgot, or hated being reminded to mark their losses. Suspicions of cheating were always about, as well.

In Piquet, I mixed the turn sequence unpredictability by using cards ( it always seems difficult to get some people to recognize the difference between unit activation and turn sequencing), introduced counter-rolls with clear “odds’ of success (a D8 vs a D4 will generally win), but no rigid odds or CRT result of success, and, most importantly, the tracking of morale on a hidden basis with chips.

Neither side knows the exact number of chips the enemy starts with, only their own, and neither side can absolutely guess when the morale will dictate an end to the game. One these things are taken from the player’s knowledge, their play becomes more measured, land more realistic than in many games.

It also lessens the need to remove troops or units from the table as the troops are what they should have always been a marker for their position and their type of troop. Real losses were tracked outside their removal, and other than an initial OOB, never required any accounting or checking off a roster.

My ultimate design goals for DF included, even making this less onerous than roster checking or tossing chips. Die Fighting include morale and the offensive capacity of an army in one device the Resource Dice. Fewer of them means you start to restrict your choices for action, too grandiose a plan burns them up too quickly, and when they are gone, the game is over. Finis!

The added key, is other than catastrophic loss, which is rare (as it as in history) and even rarer against better troops, the troops are on the table the entire time of play. Those glorious figures you have fussed over for hours in their creation are on the table to view until the decision is reached. Quite apart from the aesthetic advantage it also happens to reflect actual battles up until the moment of decision.

The added realization that last Saturday’s FPW game added was that the dice are a surrogate for the troops lost. No figures need be removed, but the dice take their place with the same effect. Eventually you run out, but the battlefield remains colorful and interesting, the units remain until the decision point, as only dice substitutes are removed! Units still retreat, morale rules still force retreats, and ultimately the dice surrogates also force closure when they are expended, just as chips or roster boxes did in other rules.

It also allows the designer and the player to escape the prison of concept and practice that the long ago games started with figure and stand loss of figures. Resources dice are actually a liberating concept, just as I believe card sequencing has been.

An AAR on the FPW game will follow tomorrow.