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Posted on Jun 7, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Anatomy of a Game System

By Tom DeFranco

We wargamers have a few things going for us that our historical counterparts did not. First and foremost among these advantages is hindsight. Many of us, besides being wargamers, are avid readers of military history. We know what the real guy did or did not do that brought victory or defeat to his forces. No wargamer, if he had the choice, in a game simulating the Battle of Shiloh, would deploy his Confederate troops the way that Beauregard did. Those thick woods combined with the line deployment of those troops slowed their movement intolerably. So we’d arrange them to suit the optimal movement rates possible. If we are Meade in a Gettysburg simulation, we wouldn’t want to have Sickles break his III Corps away from his place in line to gallivant into Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. So we wouldn’t.


Another weakness of boardgames is that we can see everything on the map. Wouldn’t that have been nice if Grant knew where Lew Wallace was at on April 6, 1862 or if Lee knew where Stuart was at on 7/1/1863? Well, between seeing the whole map (commonly referred to as the "helicopter effect" in wargaming circles) and the previously mentioned hindsight, there goes a lot of tension that the original players in these dramas had. This tension is referred to as friction or fog of war. Computer wargames have to varying degrees, successfully addressed this issue by denying us complete knowledge of our opponent’s and sometimes our own forces’ locations (Of course, this works better when we are competing against another human player on the computer than against the computer itself, as the computer always knows your whereabouts. So while it enforces the fog of war on you, it has hindsight of its own and, on occasion, will cheat.) The Gamers managed to bring some of the fog of war back to the board wargame genre. They make players write their orders.

At first blush, this mechanic scares some people off from the series. Experienced wargamers, who may have tried writing orders before, sometimes envision a nightmare of hex-by-hex plotting of each brigade or regiment and accordingly believe that they’ll be embroiled in a yearlong endeavor with one game. Others, despite reasonably written rules, quite honestly don’t know where to start and are afraid their more knowledgeable opponent will use these rules to their advantage. Finally, other gamers have opponents who are rules lawyers who will pick rules apart faster than they can count to ten.

The orders writing mechanic is actually quite simple. First, there is no hex-by-hex plotting for each regiment or brigade. That would take forever and would render this whole series unplayable, even the smaller games! You, as the army commander, write an order to a corps commander (or division commander, or in the case of the RSS, even brigade commander, if you choose). The gist of your order would be to "move your corps down X road to arrive at Y location, defend Y from enemy attack." If you want that corps to attack the enemy at location Y, you would write the order as follows: "move your corps down X road to attack the enemy at location Y. Push him off that location and hold it." The whole procedure for writing an order takes a simple perusal of the map positions and putting it on paper.

For those who fear they will be writing all day long, forget it. You have a limit as to how many orders you can issue each turn based on points, which are based on your army commander’s rating. So, Grant or Lee in most cases will be a 4 (the best); Braxton Bragg or George McClellan will normally be a 0 (the worst). This means that a player could normally whip out one or two orders a turn, tops. If you find yourself writing orders too frequently, you are probably finding yourself trying to react to your opponent’s moves. That is not a good situation. A thorough explanation of the orders writing limits may come with another article. Suffice to say the factors that govern these limits are method of delivery (are the orders written or oral or are they in person, verbal?), amount of force attached to this order (from "take that hill if practicable" to "do it or I’ll shoot you right here and now!"), ratings of both the sender and recipient of the order (0 through 4, depending on actual performance), and complexity of the order (by definition, any order written which has an expected confrontation with enemy forces is considered complex; a movement inside of one’s own lines is simple).

The advantages of the orders writing sub-system are threefold. First, they prevent one from reacting to an opponent’s move by simple kneejerk reaction. There is the possibility of gaining initiative, to react to an emergency situation; in that case, the player would roll 2d6 against the leader’s rating, if he passes, the player gets to react to the enemy move with that leader’s troops. There is a possible downside – snake eyes result in a "loose cannon" in which case your opponent writes your order. This is good because, although you know your opponent’s location and you see them move on the map, you can’t just do what you’d like. This brings the element of friction and uncertainty to the game and forces the player not just to react, but to plan his or her movements in advance. This, to a degree, is a return of the fog of war to the board wargame genre, if it ever really existed.

Second, it guides players to a more historical path than most wargames because it encourages players to think more in the fashion of a real commander. Third, it provides the player with a nice postgame analytic tool because there is an organized set of movements by each side. Along the same lines, it makes it easier (not harder, as some early reviewers of the series had claimed) to play a game solo because most games and their scenarios within contain orders for both sides. This gives the solitaire enthusiast an initial set of instructions guiding play in a direct way.

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