Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Wargame Terrain Part II

WSS Battle July 20
In Part I on war-game terrain, I touched on the physical representation of terrain, and its creation and storage, Part II shall be about what it does and how it functions in Die Fighting and Zouave II.

Terrain in most war-games has a number of different effects on the game. It may restrict or slow movement. It may provide cover from firepower weapons and/or diminish their effect. It may increase the advantages of a defender in hand to hand combat. It may obstruct line of sight preventing any fire at all, and, in some rules, limiting the reaction of units to each other. It may increase the effectiveness of certain weapons in certain situations. It may, in itself, be an objective or goal of play, and constitute part of the conditions of victory. It may have an aesthetic effect increasing the appeal of the game and its sense of time and place for players and observers.

Here are some examples of each use or effect of terrain:

Restrict or slow movement: The most obvious and common use in war-games. Streams or rivers that cannot be crossed; woods that slow or prevent certain combat types from entering (i.e Artillery not entering woods); rough ground or hills that slow the rate of advance of units. Conversely, roads my either simply free units on them from the effects of surrounding terrain, or, increase the rate of movement by some units.

Cover: Woods, wall, structures usually diminish the effect of fire by either subtracting from the firer’s effect, or adding to the defense’s resistance to fire (saving rolls, etc.)

Defense increased: Another common effect is to increase the hand-to-hand effectiveness of the defender of a wall, structure, redoubt, hill-top, etc.

LOS obstruction: Probably the most contentious aspect of terrain in many rules. Usually some minimum exposure of the unit to the view of the potential firer is required for fire to take place. this may be stated as a percentage of the unit, X number of stands, or, in terms of geometric qualifications (ie. does a straight line from the attacker to defender pass through some point, such as a command stand). Some rules also restrict a unit’s reaction where Force A cannot advance on Force B unless they are in view prior to the start of Force A’s movement.

Increasing Effectiveness: Often rules give a firer or defender on a hill, or higher, ground than its adversary, advantages. The most common is that artillery in the Horse and Musket period shoots farther and with better effect from slight elevations. Downhill charges are often given advantage.

Objective or goal for victory: Surely, the most common war-game objectives are “Take that hill!”, or Take that town!” This was often the case in history as well, where taking certain topographic features were instrumental to winning a battle. Most often they were an element that facilitated victory.

Aesthetic Effects: Simply put, attractive and well done terrain is like a stage set for a play-it can set the mood, add to the sense of “reality”and be pleasing to the eye. It can add, if only indirectly, to the enjoyment of the game-particularly for those not actually playing the game, but observing.

All of these effects, with the exception of the last, must be clearly specified in a rule set, or if not, they must be agreed to, either by the player’s having a long standing agreement on such things, or a firm pre-game stipulation on any possible points of contention-especially LOS.

LOS-no matter the rules-will require some gentlemanly behavior-pulling out a theodolite during play can spoil the enjoyment of ANY war-game. Rules lawyering the last MM of a stand’s exposure is decidedly not fun. One of the reasons I included the “Unusual Actions Unforeseen by the Rules” (page 27) is to allow a mechanism to escape such game killing behavior.

WSS Allies

On the other aspects of terrain, I have the following thoughts and opinions, which are evidenced in both Die Fighting and Zouave II:

Any restriction on movement effects by terrain should be a variable, not a fixed deduction. This is easily handled if the movement system is already a variable roll, as it is in both of the Repique publications, but even in fixed movement games, it seems to me that terrain’s effect should not be predictable, and have wide variation. The occasions in history of terrain causing the unexpected delay or failure are simply too prevalent to ignore. The angst caused by entering woods or forests to commanders is rooted in the unknown effects that ensue-this should be a factor in the war-game. In periods such as the WSS, and even up through the Napoleonic wars, units that enter structures or villages and occupy them-should not find it easy to leave. We often stipulate that once they occupy they are there for the duration.

Cover from fire is relatively straight forward, regardless of the rule set, but the trick is finding a sensible proportion of such terrain on the tabletop, and not understating the effect of the low end of the terrain cover, and overstating the high end. The all-too-frequent mistake is to have too much covering terrain on the table. Let’s face it, generals did not often choose, especially in the horse and musket era, to fight in the badlands of the Dakotas, or the middle of the alps! The armies and weaponry of that period did not need much adversity to lessen their efficiency.

Even a cursory look at typical battle fields in Europe, and to some extent, also in the Americas, shows that a third to a half of most battlefields was open ground, another third was usually a mix between low rolling hills and copses of woods, broken occasionally by very minor streams that were a messy but crossable obstruction. A VERY small percentage was rougher than that, and that was often man-made structures of a village. Chasms, vertical hills, raging rivers, woods of fairytale density were certainly possible, but damn rare. In fact, terrain of high density obstruction-could happen, such as The Wilderness, the Mance Ravine, or the Bocage, but they were the exception, and noted as such, and not the rule. On the whole, keep the terrain severity and density down, otherwise I recommend playing Warhammer 40K, not historicals.

One should also look at the way cover diminishes effect. It’s not always a simple minus one and a neat even-stepped progression from one level to another. In most rules it’s a simple progressive subtraction from the fire effect, minus one, minus two, etc. In many games this will suffice.

In both Zouave II and Die Fighting I looked at different mechanics. Zouave II just looked for a net advantage in fire or melee to one side or the other, this allowed various opportunities to re-roll for a better roll, and, if extreme up one die type (from a D8 to a D10, for instance). This made the tactical advantages of terrain, less linear or progressive-and, other than the obvious advantages of having an advantage vis-a-vis re-rolls and die improvement-far less predictable.

Die fighting, took these concepts even farther-with the addition of more dice to a roll providing a higher potential low and high roll by either the attacker or defender. Because of the Die Fighting addition of die total mechanics, I had to take a counter-intuitive step in subtracting all ones, and multiple 1 re-rolls, from a Class I terrain attacker’s roll, all 1’s and 2’s from a Class II terrain, and all 1, 2, and 3’s from a Class II terrain. This preserved the potential, however slight, of the attacker scoring hits on the defender in class V terrain, as he could still roll 6’s-but he was going to need a bunch to compensate for 84% of his dice not counting. Class IV and V terrain in Die Fighting is pretty tough-much tougher than in other rules. Even class three which occurs relatively frequently as village structures, dense woods, or steep or rough hills is a bear, with 50% of potential die rolls not counting. I love the system for its simplicity, and for the easy mnemonic of the excluded die rolls matching the terrain grade. That the mechanic is essentially identical, though with different factors, for both fire and melee, greatly simplifies play.

LOS issues have always frankly bored me, as many gamers make them labyrinthine and very complex issues in their design. What’s at stake is simple; Can the unit see and fire at another unit? I HATE the quibbling over millimeters and using protractors to argue the finest point. Keep it simple! If 1/2 of the unit is exposed to at least half of the firing or attacking unit, case closed. If that issue is generating a quibble just roll the damn dice-high man gets his way. There is enough vagaries in war that attempting to find surety on this issue is absolutely silly! Use the rule on page 27 of DF, declare the older man correct, flip a coin! But please, don’t write 5 pages of LOS rules, most of which never are applied, and for which there is always an exception, or an extremely unusual case. One combat in a table top battle that involves dozens of units and hours of gaming will seldom, if ever, makes a crucial difference.

Terrain increasing effectiveness is a common effect. It is usually confined to giving an advantage to a unit attacking from a higher terrain than the defender, or artillery firing from a height. Fair enough, but keep an eye out for including all considerations in your estimation of the advantages. Guns from a height gain range, often have a clear view of the target, and the fire effect upon it, but ball from heights, especially against soft soil following a rain, or plowed ground, often buries in having less effect upon the unit, and bounce through is sometimes eliminated by the more acute angle of incidence of the ball with the ground.

Terrain as an objective or goal, is, in my estimation, far more important a mechanic than many rule sets give to it. It is also something that, by design, Die fighting does especially well by linking certain terrain features to the gain of resource dice, which allows the army to continue its attack and absorb the higher losses that an attacker generally absorbs. The fact is most battles do have grand tactical and strategic reasons for attacks being made in certain sectors or against certain parts of the enemy’s position, BUT those goals and aims are usually achieved tactically by the taking of certain, specific, terrain. A key bridge, ridge line, village, cross-roads, or the enemy’s escape route and lines of communications. In tactical war-games it makes great sense to reward the capture of certain identifiable terrain points as a measure of an army’s potential success in winning the battle.

It should not be a single point in most cases, but a collection of points that incrementally augment the chances of success. They shouldn’t, in my opinion, be of a fixed value, but a variable one that is weighted depending on the generally perceived “potential” value of that terrain point to the battle. The reward for this in easily implemented in DF by the award of additional dice, but other games could use a variety of point systems that relate to the games mechanics. The key for DF is that the addition of dice is simple, quick, and pretty inclusive of measuring army morale, as well as the military objective’s value.
Finally, one last word on aesthetics. It only takes a bit of care to create a visually appealing game, and the terrain will be a good part of that artistic effect. Make the game a performance event for you and your fellow gamers, as well as interested onlookers. It can be elaborate, but needn’t be. Minimalist treatments can be stunning, and in many ways,, MORE beautiful than something too over the top. Just think about the appearance and layout of the terrain. Give it as much thought at the scenario and the painting of the figures. It can add immensely to everyone’s enjoyment when it looks planned, finished, elegant, and beautiful.