Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seeing The Future: Thoughts on Combat Results in Tactical Games

Stephen B. Patrick presented some detailed thoughts on Combat Results Tables (CRT) in the February 1972 issue of Moves magazine that are interesting not only in their ability to briefly summarize their history but in exploring ongoing issues as today's game designers - both board and computer - continue the quest to best marry playability and realism in a single vehicle. I presented some thoughts on the subject in November 2008 on another site, which I'm presenting here in revised form. ("Professor Professorson" just found a link to the entire archive of back issues, incidentally, which Greg Costikyan uploaded to - read the details here.)

At the time the article in Moves was written, wargaming at the tactical scale in board games was in its infancy though miniatures rules had been promoted by pioneers in the hobby such as Jack Scruby in the U.S. and Charles Grant in the U.K. for many years. While Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz contained many innovative concepts compared to the standard fare since board wargames first appeared on the market in 1958, such as isomorphic mapboards and a multiple scenario format, the method in which the game produced combat results remained unremarkable. When SPI began producing tactical games - including Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-15, and Grunt, set in Vietnam, the CRT was similarly - speaking purely from hindsight - uninspired.

James F. Dunnigan defines a CRT in the 3rd Edition of his Wargames Handbook as

A Probability Table that shows the possible results of all combats allowed within a particular game. The greater the ratio of attacker to defender strength, the higher the chance of success. Because so many things can go wrong during the combat itself, a die or other random-number generator is used to determine the actual result. These tables are usually calculated based on what information is available on actual historical losses.

Stephen Patrick noted the trend in games in the late 1960s and into the new decade of the '70s was to simply re-use CRTs from game to game. In his article in February 1972 he identified correctly "the touchstones of authenticity and playability" and how the two concepts inter-related:

One can start with full authenticity and back off far enough to gain playability, or start with a purely playable system and work toward realism by adding the elements of historicity to give the right flavor. There will be a gray area where the playable takes on the flavor of war and where the war becomes playable. Moreover, this point will differ depending on the point of origin.

He then contrasted the Avalon Hill approach to games with the SPI approach; he contended that Avalon Hill's "playability" perspective simply produced games with similar rules for every game while SPI produced more historical games with tailor made rules sets. As an example of Avalon Hill's devotion to playability, he cited their CRT, which was a standard in their line of games to that date:

A - Attacker back 2
D - Defender back 2
Elim - Eliminated

When Strategy & Tactics began to publish tactical games (and it produced tactical titles outside of the "modern" genre on which I focus my attention), they similarly retained a common CRT with simple results in the platoon and company level games of the time:

"No result"

Patrick's thesis was that this "tactical Combat Results Table is the most archaic element in S&T's bag of tricks - the most playable/non-realistic element currently in use."

What Does It Mean?

Simply put, the CRT delineates the results of combat, and Patrick suggested that any action in which two opposing forces meet can result one of a limited number of results at the end of a fixed period of time.

* Melee (both forces remain locked in battle)
* Attacker repelled
* Defender repelled in good order
* Defender routed

Patrick noted that there were other possibilities; a pyhrric victory in which the attacker was severely damaged in the battle, for example. Tertiary considerations were fatigue levels, whether an attack was an initial action, a continuation of a previous attack, or the end of a battle. His main question, however, was how to transpose the basic CRT results to a game such that it adequately represented the history being portrayed.

The easiest result to simulate, according to Patrick, was the "no result", and a "dispersed" unit he felt was better described as "shaken" - temporarily unable to fight. He felt "eliminated" was draconian, as

...few battles result in an entire unit being destroyed to a man in a given time period, particularly during the brief period of time portrayed in the tactical games. Thus, there must simultaneously be some way to reflect the decline in strength from being in the thick of it and, at the same time, to get units off the board. After all, pasteboard pieces don't really have morale or take losses, so something must be injected to bring the authentic within the realm of playable. The 1914 solution of stepped units is obviously the best way to reflect casualties short of going the bookkeeping routes. But even (this) is viewed with displeasure by some (and) requires the injection of a whole set of pieces. The object here is to consider the requirements of a Combat Results Table which can be inserted in any game without actually having to totally revamp the rules.

Another solution was to add an increased dispersion rule, whereby a second retreat caused elimination, and a third option discussed by Patrick was to consider two retreat possibilities - retreat and rout - and have routed units equate to eliminated for purposes of the game.

Patrick also talked about using different CRT for different phases of the battle - for example during the initial phase of a battle when morale of an attacker was high, and again when units were tired during the last phase of a battle. In effect, he felt a battle might need three separate CRT to adequately model the distinct phases of a battle. He felt that not only fatigue, but fanaticism and the effects of good training would make themselves felt in the latter phases of a battle and should be reflected in the game mechanics.

Theory and Practice: Soldiers

Tellingly, in Moves issue 4, in August 1972, detailed articles on the development of the game discuss the history of the development of infantry and artillery, show images of the different drafts of the map, talk about rules development and scenario drafts, but have no discussion of the CRT. It's not known if a non-standard CRT was ever even contemplated.

Predicting the Future

Patrick ended his article with the following:

Returning to the real life situation...if the research is good (the result) should be a Combat Results Table which can complement the accuracy of the rest of the rules in evoking the period in question. The obvious point, though, is that the Combat Results Table now becomes an integral part of game design, rather than a handy plug-in section, such as the initial description of the pieces and the game map, and it is as important to make the Combat Results Table valid as it is to calculate the Attack Strength of a crossbow.

Logical Outgrowths

CRT development stagnated in tactical games at the squad and platoon level; two years later,Tank! still had simple odd-ratios driving the results of the CRT, though there were now panic results. Game development was focusing on whether play should be simultaneous movement or sequential and the CRT was still being viewed, perhaps, as simply a given.

When man-to-man games like Sniper! and Patrol came along, however, their very nature caused further development of the CRT as there were a greater number of weapons systems in play.

Which brings us to John Hill. He viewed the possible combat results in Squad Leader as still a fairly simple proposition. Despite the fact he was contemplating what would be an enormously ambitious and complicated game system in which multiple weapons systems would interact, he argued that it didn't matter if a squad of ten men were machine-gunned in the open, shelled moving through woods, pelted in their foxholes with grenades or burned out of a bunker with a flamethrower, the results would be the same - they would be killed, they would suffer some form of morale loss, or there would be no appreciable impact at all. "Design for Effect" became the mantra for Squad Leader's development, and was used to explain away inconsistencies in the design, wherein European streets became 80 metre wide boulevards, and physically fit men could only move 160 metres in two minutes. He simply "factored in" grenades as part of "close combat" and "point blank fire" and did away with the need for special rules or counters for them altogether.

PC Games

The first Combat Mission titles remained partially faithful to the notion that players wanted to see CRT results; while there were no visible dice rolls or interventions of fate, there was lip service made to such things as "fanaticism", and moreover, firepower stats were presented in unit information screens, and was available in the game via mouseclick during the orders phase, as was cover stats for infantry units, morale and fatigue levels (though not necessarily the explicit effects of same), as well as detailed armour value for AFVs, general penetration capabilities of weapons, blast values for artillery, etc.

Firepower and cover stats were available right in the main game space of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin.
While there was no longer a CRT for the player to refer to, enterprising players could recreate specific battlefield phenomena in the editor to determine probabilities - if he was curious how often a specific tank type would bog in a particular type of terrain and weather conditions, he could create a sample scenario and run it repeatedly until he had a sample to estimate from. Websites and collections of forum postings with links to just "research" have taken the place of the CRT in some cases. A "Player's Guide" was released for Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin with tables of unit stats, which players could look up. The handbook was not billed as a "scenario designer's guide" - though it did contain interviews with scenario authors as an appendix and the data was likely aimed as much at them as players.

Hidden Outcomes and the Deletion of the CRT:

Given everything that was said in 1972 about the importance of having a valid CRT, there seems to be a trend in video games to keeping game routines hidden from the gamers who play them. The obvious desire is for "realism" and the common argument is that real life commanders "don't count firepower factors." Nonetheless, the player has to have a way to relate to the game, which has to use mathematical equations and logarithms to simulate results. Having access to the data increases understanding of how the data works - and the more "realistic" the simulation, the less likely the player is to have access to the data. In Panzer Command, for example (based on the Panzer War miniature rules), players have the ability to modify unit data if it doesn't fit their perceptions of reality, though the data isn't easily accessible inside the game (altering it is done via editable "xml" files - text documents which are loaded into the "back end" before the game is started). In the second generation Combat Mission game engine, where small arms and tank fire is ostensibly tracked by a real world physics engine, there is very little way for players to anticipate "hit chances" or probabilities beyond very general assumptions regarding terrain and situation - which is exactly what the developers intended. They would argue "CRTs" are a wargame construct, and that their wargame should be devoid of them!

My questions to you:
Patrick starts his proposition with "if the research is good". How much is actually "knowable" about what goes on at the tactical level, that would justify things like firepower factors or combat results to begin with? And must the designer choose between accurately modeling the proceedings (tracking every exchange of gunfire with precision) or the outcomes (10-25% killed in every average engagement, 25-50% wounded)?

This screenshot of Tigers Unleashed was unveiled on another gaming site. Do wargames really have to have hexes and counters in order for players to be able to reasonably access detailed data about their own troops' capabilities?

Addendum: in the comments to my original article, James Lowry noted that Anzio's CRT permitted step-reduction results as early as 1969. Advanced Squad Leader added a form of step-loss results to the CRT as well, an extension of a game function started in the original SL game series.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Special Editions of Wargaming Magazines

There has been some confusion about the release of Operations magazine Special Edition No.1, particularly among fans of Advanced Squad Leader here at gamesquad. Perhaps a look at the history of wargaming magazines might ease some of the tension.

Magazines and House Organs

The first name in wargaming magazines was The General, which went into publication in 1964, as a bi-monthly periodical devoted to supporting Avalon Hill's line of wargames, with articles on game tactics, history, and industry news. Wargaming in the modern recreational sense was in its infancy, and AH had been producing wargames for a mass market for only five years. The General was intended at first as a general interest magazine, but developed into a "house organ" in which discussion was restricted to AH published games.

Strategy & Tactics was founded in 1966 as a wargaming "fanzine", or amateur publication, by US Air Force Staff Sergeant Chris Wagner. It was intended as independent competition with The General. The magazine did not meet with commercial success, and James F. Dunnigan bought it out for a dollar, founding Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) to publish it (it was also published under the name Poultron Press).

The rest, as they say, is history. The General went on until 1998 until AH was sold to Hasbro. SPI was bought out by TSR, and S&T eventually ended up in the hands of Decision Games, who also acquired Fire & Movement, another wargaming magazine started in 1976. F&M was a true hobby (or industry, if you prefer) magazine, whereas SPI was more of a military history magazine with a game in every issue.

Other titles appeared in the early 1970s; Moves was SPI's own house organ, and discussed strategies and published variants for the games published in S&T. Panzerfaust was another fanzine that turned into Campaign when editor Don Greenwood left for Avalon Hill; it folded its tent in 1982. The Wargamer was another magazine that offered a game in each issue between 1977 and 1986, and then was resurrected in a second volume briefly from 1987 to 1990.

As The General was nearing the end of its run, The Boardgamer was founded by Bruce Monnin. Avalon Hill had been bought out by Hasbro and the future of their games was in doubt. Monnin intended to continue support for Avalon Hill products in the same way The General. The magazine never achieved high circulation and boasted only 200 subscribers although it did manage to survive for nine years. The magazine also lacked color and professional graphics.

The Gamers, under Dean Essig, who had been producing such games as the Tactical Combat Series starting with Bloody 110 in the late 1980s, had their own house organ called Operations which began publication in 1991. Many threads came together when Multi-Man Publications acquired the rights to Advanced Squad Leader as well as The Gamers line of products. Bruce Monnin later, in 2004, became editor of Operations. The stated aim of Multi-Man Publishing was to have Operations be to their line of games what The General was to Avalon Hill's line of products.

Advanced Squad Leader
ASL had been considered by many to be the premier game in the Avalon Hill line; with a dozen modules and a rulebook set in a 3 ring binder representing years of rules development, it occupied a special pride of place. It had its own periodical under Avalon Hill - the ASL Annual - which became so popular it was published twice annually for a brief period. Under MMP, a new periodial, the ASL Journal, was begun.

The development of Advanced Squad Leader into a sophisticated and complex game system made it difficult for newcomers to get into the hobby, and so the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits were printed by MMP; additional scenarios were published for these ASLSKs in Operations, but other ASL content was restricted to the Journal.

Operations Special Edition No. 1
In the fall of 2008, the first Special Edition of Operations was announced. For the first time, full ASL content was to be included in the magazine; including a full Historical ASL module with map, campaign game, and two scenarios, as well as a scenario for Valor of the Guards. The magazine also offered a complete mini-game (unrelated to ASL) depicting the battle for Iwo Jima complete with map and mounted counters, as well as a wealth of articles on other products in MMP's line, for the price of $40.

The controversy among some ASL collectors who now have their noses out of joint is that they feel put out by the fact that they were unable to obtain the ASL material except by purchasing the special edition of the magazine.

Special Editions in the History of the Medium

The number of "special editions" that have been produced by other publications has been low and the Operations special issue may in fact represent the most content-rich special issue ever produced for a wargaming magazine in terms of practical content. A complete game and an HASL CG between two covers seems to be something unmatched, especially with the additional scenarios, and articles for a variety of other games.

The "special editions" of Strategy & Tactics were basically historical articles and minor variant rules - they actually had less content than their normal "game in a magazine" regular issues.

The General did a "special" issue for Origins in 1988 that was basically reprints of issues they had previously run, from issues ranging from Volume 8 to Volume 24, on arcane stuff from how to pronounce Japanese ship names to a glossary of fighter pilot terminology. There was no new content.

Moves had at least two special editions, but they weren't printed out of sequence. Issue 71 in Aug-Sep 1992 was simply sub-titled as Special Edition #2. The issue was designed for the beginning wargamer, and featured an introductory mini-game, a "Basic Wargame Library" article, an article index to Moves and S&T by military period, and an article on "Basic Tactics for Beginners" as special content.

In my opinion, Operations presented something truly unique, especially in comparison to what other publications have historically offered up in their own special issues.

The goal
The goals of these special issues seems to have been the same in all cases - to welcome new players to the hobby, to provide "special" content to veteran members of the ranks, and to give a wide view of what the hobby has to offer. The General did it by offering up a broad base of its past articles. Moves did it with a handy index to its past articles and an introductory wargame. Operations hit all the bases by covering many of its popular titles with various articles, as well as appealing to new and older gamers alike with a brand new introductory-level title. It's loyal ASL fans were treated to brand new content as well - though interestingly the Singling situation had been covered in not one but two previous scenarios in "official" ASL and was now being done in "historical" form on the actual terrain.

In short, Operations was doing what all special editions had done in the past, offering broad coverage of what MMP had to offer its customers.

My final word
If Ladies Home Journal has a cover story on Barack Obama that I really want a copy of but nothing else in the magazine interests me, I have the option of either buying the magazine knowing that my money will largely be invested in that single article, or I can simply pass on the issue altogether if I feel my money is poorly spent by doing that.

My question to you
Why should that be different for ASL players?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Disappearance and Death of 15-year old Call of Duty Player

It is with great sadness that I draw the attention of readers of gamesquad to the fact that one of our own has departed our ranks. A fellow Canadian, a gamer, a tactical wargamer, and more importantly, a fifteen year old boy.

I've been following this story in the news with special interest since his disappearance was announced on October 22nd, 2008, and desperately hoped that there would be nothing to report in the end, aside from a disagreement over access to online time. It would appear from this report that everyone's worst fears have come true.

The briefest of background is in order: Brandon Crisp was a devotee of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. His parents exercised their prerogative to take away his access to the game when they felt his other household obligations weren't being met. Apparently angered by a decision to take away his console, he stormed out of the house on October 13th. His bicycle was found the same day. A body believed to be his was recovered today, November 5th.

CTV News Story

The story spoke to me if for no other reason than I recall being 15 years old and interested in losing myself in military and adventure-themed escapism. I can't and won't speculate on states of mind or discipline, and really, don't think it would be responsible or, frankly, anyone's business to second guess either Brandon or the parents. The events were tragic and any reasonable human being was wishing for a happy outcome. Nonetheless, the superficial similarities and the memories of my own past gave me pause to reflect.

In some ways the gaming landscape has changed a lot, with online access to opponents, but I think at its core, things are fundamentally the same. Whether the opponent is in the imagination or another human, the interface is still a video screen, and the indulgence of the parent or guardian is still key. I wasn't aware of that then, but at 12 or 15 years of age, probably few are. I was lucky enough to be able to skate through schoolwork, and so devote more time to "important" pursuits. My parents were very indulgent, when I look back; we had several small color television sets in the house, one of which was devoted to our Intellivision, and I spent hours in simulated combat over Europe playing B-17 Bomber. It was captivating enough for me that I devoted a page of prose to it and submitted it to the junior high school literary journal. Such "accomplishments" have the power to mildly embarrass me now, but were part of my formative years and in the end it would be dishonest to hide from it. My trusty Squad Leader set made the rounds to several friends in an attempt to drum up interest, but by high school, girls started to attract more attention among my friends than the prospect of killing imaginary Germans, Russians or Americans.

Some may shamefully, crassly and opportunistically use this tragedy as evidence once again of gaming as a harmful influence on impressionable young minds. I think suggesting too much about this case without facts in evidence would be irresponsible so I won't go too far in rebutting such suggestions, never having met any of the people in question. But speaking from my own experience, I did eventually grow my own interest in the fairer sex, did eventually move out of my parents' basement, get a job, earn a living - but was able to balance all that with an interest in conflict simulation and hobbies that are not unhealthy, and in fact have been rewarding in many ways. I've been published in the hobby press, but moreover made friendships and reaped other intangible rewards from an international community I enjoy participating in. Then again, I was never at risk in ways that children - that's what he was - of Brandon's age are today.

We will not know what rewards Brandon would have lived to see; perhaps, like many - most - gamers, he simply played because he liked the game. That's reward enough to justify it. He liked it enough that he was upset when made to stop. It's a testament to a lot of things; the quality of games today, or the relative comfort and ease of life in Canada, bought and paid for by real soldiers, in which the worst hardships a 15 year old boy might face are not enough time for a game. We still don't know what happened or why; it may also speak to a more sinister element of society - there are hints of it in the story, though the latest report today says there is no evidence of foul play - that may make themselves known as the investigation develops, but no evidence has been presented of that yet.

Whatever fate befell him, I can say with reasonable certainty that it was not the game itself that led to his demise - nor his parent's decision. The question of "blame" won't be for onlookers to determine, but for the police via their investigation. Blaming either a game company or a 15 year old boy for wanting to play their offerings would be tilting at windmills. If the relatively repetitive and sterile environment of B-17 Bomber could keep me captivated for hours on end, I can't even imagine what it would be like to be that age, and have access to online opponents and photo-realistic environments in 3-D.


The closest I came at that age was Treasure of Tarmin, a first person fantasy game which was at the time cutting edge technology. I never endured the loss of having it taken away, so I can't say how I would have reacted. I think the whole episode may ultimately be a series of perfectly natural decisions that have been marred by a horrible and tragic ending.

That no foul play was involved can't make this easier for the parents. I never had to deal with the possibility of interacting online with strangers; our highest level of stress was when a friend would invite an unfamiliar classmate over to your house as a third party, and he would ask to use your bathroom, or ask to drink your soda and your unformed adolescent mind would wonder if it would be okay with your parents. We thought we had it tough when that happened. Parents thought they had it tough, too, not knowing who their kids were "hanging out" with. At least they could see them, down there in the basement, at least when the lights came up.

Whatever happened to Brandon or why, I can say that while I never knew him, I'm sorry he is gone, and equally sorry for his family. I get the feeling he was one of us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Massively-Multi Player Online Tactical Wargames?

When is the tactical gaming world going to get a truly inspirational massively multi-player online (MMO) gaming experience?

Didn't someone try that?

World War II Online (WWIIOL) seemed more like a crass attempt to cash in on the RPG craze by allowing grog-geeks to live out their fantasies in first person combat rather than attemping to model the Second World War in anything like realistic terms. Other games have followed on a smaller scale, such as Operation Flashpoint and Red Orchestra - and the concept works when you can mold squads of men willing to put in the effort and the discipline and the training to do what real soldiers do - dedicate themselves to learning standards of conduct and subordinate themselves to the good of the team. But to expect 30,000 "team players" to do the same is ludicrous.

A Better Idea and Hunting Tank Software have agreed to join forces and provide something unique - well, not totally unique, as Muzzle Velocity did this about 8 years ago or so: provide an operational level layer to a tactical 3D game, in this case, their venerable old title Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. They've been at it for at least 8 years, according to their website. A look at the screenshots isn't promising; the interface is reminiscent of Soldiers at War, the old SSI clunker which uses a 3/4 view in 3D instead of a standard map and NATO symbols with which to command regiments, battalions and companies around hundreds of square kilometres of real world terrain, generating battles resolved in Combat Mission. Not a horrible idea, but there will be no front lines, just blocks of kilometre-square tiles held by opposing forces, no view of the actual terrain from the operational map, and apparently a host of other problems that keep delaying this program further and further.

Isn't it time for a truly unique MMO? Why not find a developer out there who will marry up their tactical game to a true operational level online environment that will do this:

  • map an entire theatre with an interface to an existing global data package - some data has changed since the war, but so what - tweak the major changes like Berlin, Stalingrad or the Normandy coastline and accept the others as acceptable
  • allow players to sign on as battalion commanders of anonymous line infantry battalions - no elite panzers, paratroopers, paramarines or SS; 95% of the war was fought by units no more distinguished than the plain old "leg" infantry
  • give them real world missions - no "quests", no start-overs, and if you die, you die. And recognize that players have real lives. Have the front progress at a rate of one day every week; you get 7 days to play out the missions of your infantry companies along the front for those 24 hours - perhaps you'll get a battalion attack; perhaps you'll have a defend in place, maybe one company will send out a fighting patrol. Every attack you make effects the battle line and the games of those around you - all the other players signed in will be fighting on your flanks against the same AI generated enemy. Have different worlds for different nationalities - one for Axis, one for Allied, with enough interest, branch out into theatres - Italy, Russia, Western Front, or even different battles, and run them simultaneously - Normandy, Breakout, Brittany, Market-Garden, Scheldt, Bulge, Rhineland, etc. And if there are guys who can do a battle a day, have a "fast" world that moves a battle a day and a "slow" world. Turn them over, start them again, keep them going. There's money to be made. Offer "private" worlds, with human vs. human play. And if the humans don't make a deadline - auto resolve the battle and let them come back for the next one.
  • Instead of phony rank and medal systems that signify nothing, keep a personnel file with accomplishment listings; Successful Passage of Lines, Successful Water Crossing, Successful Fighting Patrol, Successful Combined Arms Assault. Let the player ticket punch like a career officer rather than collect phony medals. Count kill ratios and track which weapons systems kill which units - arguably, the best commander will actually let his artillery kill the enemy and will lose the least men while gaining the most objectives.
  • Actually, why not permit "quests"? Some of the fun involved in "meta-campaigns" that were crafted for Combat Mission - manual campaign systems run as, essentially, MMOs - involved such special missions as fighting for downed aircraft containing staff officers bearing operations orders, or such things. These types of missions actually happened in real life and could spice up an MMO quite nicely. They were fun in a meta-campaign setting.

If nothing else, the success of manually-run "meta-campaigns" have proven the concept of an MMO works. And they were run for free.

It was simple, as far as Combat Mission went. A group of players went out and researched a real life battle, and found real world geographical data - the above map came from the fighting around Lauban in early 1945, courtesy Stefan Korshak. The group sussed out the orders of battle involved in game terms and banged out the maps, a portion of which, in CM terms, are shown below:

Like all meta-campaigns, the rules had to be agreed on and administered by mutual agreement and the campaign was labour intensive. But the concept was valid and proved it could be done. A couple dozen players rotated in and out of the game as real life intervened - and no money changed hands, nothing was automated.

My final word
With a profit incentive, and given the popularity of such games as World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and others in the fantasy genre, it would be interesting to see if a true operational level game married up with a tactical level game couldn't prove as lucrative for a developer enterprising enough to try and make it a reality. Certainly, for those stalwart few who have meta-campaigned their way through a few CM games, the interest has been there.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Combat Mission's Wrong Left Turn into the Uncanny Valley

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:
Between 1968 and the year 2000, over 100 separate board wargames were released depicting tactical level (meaning individual units depict platoons, squads, or individual men) combat in the 20th Century. Since then, several dozen more titles have appeared - some new ones, mostly modular in concept with multiple add-ons for the same game system. A review of these games gives one an opportunity to see how different designers have tackled design problems.

From 1985 to present, there have been several dozen different PC titles to portray the same thing - i.e. 20th Century tactical combat.

The history of the Combat Mission franchise is well known, from release of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord in 2000 through its two successful sequels to its latest release with a new game engine, Combat Mission: Shock Force. Some points to note - it was certainly not the first tactical, squad-based game to graduate to the computer. Under Fire was on PCs as early as 1985. It was not the first 3D tactical squad-based game, Muzzle Velocity had that honour. It was, though, the first game to combine squad based tactics, turn-based planning, 3D graphics, and a WEGO system that was at that time revolutionary - and from what I understand, is still unique. Other games of the genre seemed inferior by comparison - Steel Panthers was far too "gamey" - you could draw fire by taking advantage of the turn-based system unrealistically since everything was sequential and strictly IGO-UGO, and Close Combat was too closed-ended - making maps was not something casually done, and on-map forces were restricted to over-strength platoons confined to a few hundred metres of terrain.

Designer John Hill - later famous for Squad Leader - published "Ten Rules for Playability" in the early 1970s. Part and parcel to playability was the concept of scale. You can't simulate Napoleon's invasion of Russia using 40 metre hex maps. Games were designed to be played in one sitting (for the computer, this is debatable, since we can now save games without having to worry about cats and kids, but I think a good rule of thumb remains that a playing time of a couple of hours for a single game is about right). His inappropriately named Squad Leader, released in 1977, had the player control company-sized groups of men, divided into individual pieces representing 10-15 men apiece. The system was highly abstract - "Design for Effect" was his mantra - and it worked. It was simple and it was fun, and it provided the framework for a dizzying amount of more complex rules later, which have again been simplified down to the three Starter Kits - ASL Lite, if you prefer.

When Squad Leader came out in 1977, it abstracted a whole lot of processes that another squad level game released a year earlier had rendered in painstaking detail. It went on to become Advanced Squad Leader, which now has 13 modules, 2 deluxe modules, 7 historical modules/studies, a rash of TPP imitators, over 4000 printed scenarios and possibly the most commercially successful board wargame to date.

The game that came a year before it was Tobruk. Aside from being an ugly little game with flat terrain boards and an uninspiring choice of theatre, it tracked every single tank's shot in painful detail. And it was so labour intensive that almost no one played it. Publisher Avalon Hill thought so little of it, they actually gave the rights back to its inventor, the late Hal Hock, and said "thanks, but no thanks." The game sat around for 20 years until Raymond J. Tapio rewrote it heavily and made it playable. In other words, more like Squad Leader. It is now on the market as Advanced Tobruk System, but it seems to me that Tapio still makes money selling TPP ASL stuff too because ATS won't do it on its own.

Combat Mission
Wargamers gagged for Squad Leader for the computer for years (and when Hasbro abused the rights to the franchise name with an absurd man-to-man game by that title, the gagging turned to retching, but I digress), and Combat Mission delivered.

What did Combat Mission really do?

Well, it provided the same painful detail of tank penetrating hits and ammunition that both Tobruk and Squad Leader did (not to mention other games I haven't mentioned here, like Yaquinto's trilogy of 88/Panzer/Armor who had great fidelity in the armour modelling realm also), but with the advantage of a computer doing the calculations so that the player didn't have to. The newcomer was a bit lost, but it didn't take much intuition to figure out Tiger=good, Sherman=bad. And learning was part of the fun.

But the whining about the graphics! The blocky 3D cavemen running around like refugees from a Jack Kirby comic book were positively grotesque. The twitch crowd whined to high heaven about camera controls and wanting to see every man on the map.


This is how a squad of 10 men is represented in the original Combat Mission trilogy.

So what does BFC do?
They listened, of course. For some reason, tracking individual bullets became a matter of priority. But let's stop and look at the decision for a second. A single Mimimi LMG fires 1100 rounds per minute of 5.56mm ammunition. An M4 carbine can fire 500 rpm. That's a lot of firepower for a squad. More important - that's a lot of trajectories for the engine to trace.

1:1 modelling became a buzzword on the BFC forums after the release of Combat Mission: Afrika Korps, the final title in their original engine trilogy, as if it was some kind of Holy Grail or something. But look what it's resulted in.
  • reams of data for the computer to sift through. So much data, that WEGO TCP play was ruled out by the developers as technologically impossible, who had threatened to leave out PBEM, too.
  • individual bullet tracking is in, but what about the brain behind the gun? There is no data on personalities; every soldier in every squad is a cookie cutter with the same physical - and mental - attributes as his mates.
  • area fire and movement commands still seem to snap to an 8 metre grid, called "Action Spots" by the developer - there are no visual cues in the game as to where these Action Spots actually lie.
  • map scale is reduced; where one could play comfortably on 4 square kilometres in Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin, high end systems chug away on maps smaller than that in CM:SF. Real time control of anything more than a reinforced platoon on a "medium" map is probably impossible in most situations anyway if anything like actual tactics are going to be employed against a human opponent using a dynamic defence.

Whose idea was this anyway?
Design for Effect was elegant, and it worked. It worked in CM:BO, CM:BB and CM:AK, too. There was no great "need" for 1:1 modelling except among those with no real understanding of what a wargame is supposed to be. BFC understood when they made Beyond Overlord. People scoffed at those ugly 3D models and didn't "get" why 3 soldiers really stood in for 10. But the fans did - and hey, so did the reviewers. They LOVED CM:BO and the next two titles.

The Uncanny Valley
Is 1:1 the wrong way to go? I don't really believe so. Eventually, and soon, hardware issues won't be a problem with this level of modelling. But look at any "company-based" wargame in the field of board wargaming, and none of them have 1:1 modelling. Not one. Firepower is grouped at the squad or platoon level; that trend started with the very first tactical board wargame in 1969 and continues to the present day. What is gained in CM by tracking individual bullets? Nothing - in fact - it may even be a design blunder. Can't imagine counting up individual men on a Squad Leader map to count firepower factors. Just because we have a computer to do the computations for us, it doesn't make the design philosophy any more "correct."

I do know I still play the original CM titles and enjoy them. It doesn't take 1:1 modelling to engage you - it's the gameplay. In fact, I think we've reached the Uncanny Valley in CM, where it is so close to real life as to heighten expectations about game performance unrealistically, but not close enough to be convincing in actual play. Seeing squads stack up outside a door is great - but why did they run around the building to do it, and why didn't half of them just jump through the window?

This is a squad in CM:SF; sure, there are the right number of bodies on the ground, but how come they can't shoot in different directions?

Of course, I don't know if a simple update to the CM:BB graphics would have been satisfying, either (i.e. three man representations with the new 3D models).

But what about stuff like convoy driving (we still don't have a "follow me" command)? CM:SF has hugely powerful artillery modelling now - but the philosophy in CM:BO was that the games all started AFTER the big artillery barrages. Again, this is a step in the other direction from the original philosophy of abstraction - a philosophy that worked well.

CM:SF is necessarily in the middle ground where it will please no one. The level of abstraction that was such anathema to the Operation Flashpoint fans (I am one) is gone, but it isn't replaced with high fidelity yet. Squad members are nameless, faceless droids who are largely stupid. That every bullet they fire can be tracked doesn't mean much if every man aims at the same 8 metre grid.

The scenario editor/Tac AI has been revitalized - to the point that we are incapable of surprising ourselves. No random maps or forces, and the soldiers do whatever they're told to - and no more. The great appeal of random battles is gone. Again, there was abstraction in terrain and force mix, but because BFC is now saying that the map editor is more "realistic", we can't have "fun" in the form of random maps.

Whoever said "realistic" was the way to go? It sure wasn't BFC when the community posted for six months about the Sten Guns in the British OOB for CM:AK during the patch releases. They're still there.

Whither Next
It may be too late to turn back, but I think embracing some of the limitations of the past may be a good thing. Abstraction is good.

When Firepower came out in the 1980s, it was a man-to-man wargame that modelled every individual small arm from 1945 to the present, and had rules so detailed that you had to use arrow counters to mark which side of a tree your dude was standing on. And it wasn't nearly as much fun as Sniper! which was rereleased by TSR at about the same time, a reprint of the earlier SPI game from 15 years earlier, which had abstract values for weapons - and no little arrow counters.

A PBEM correspondent of mine wrote to tell me that he felt BFC's adoption of a RT option meant that instead of being the industry leader in WEGO, they now specialized in nothing, and were mediocre at both WEGO and RT. I think the 1:1 modelling has had a huge impact not just on computer hardware performance, but on perceptions of the game, design philosophy, you name it. You see that many guys on the screen you expect different things from the engine - stuff that has been explicitly stated aren't being delivered yet (like bullets not going through stone walls because of abstractions in the terrain mesh). The official forums talk of "gamey" tactics such as driving Strykers into buildings in order to let infantry dismount in safety. These are abstractions that one wouldn't expect to find in a 1:1 model - and speak to the heightened perception that comes with this level of modelling that the new engine does not in fact pay off. (Of course, flooding a position with armoured halftracks was also a problem in Squad Leader, allowing a "gamey" player to offload infantry in the vicinity of the enemy in safety - something that was addressed in the ASL rules.)

My Final Word
Panzer Command by Matrix Games may be the up and coming series to watch. If nothing else, the developers are actively engaged with the community and working on putting in features as requested. The developers actually play their own game, also, which may be a key difference between their approach and that taken by their competition. Time will tell.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ralph Ivy's Combat Vision Maps

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

To mark the 10th Anniversary of Squad Leader, Rodger MacGowan's Fire & Movement had a good article on the history of tactical wargaming in their May-June 1987 issue. (On a personal note, this article is what has inspired my ongoing interest in the history of tactical gaming, and provides a good, solid (though brief) background in the earliest years of the hobby from 1969 and the release of Tac Game 3 up through the development of ASL).

Also published in that issue was an ASL scenario as well as these two mapboards. Some interesting comments by the designer:
John Hill has said that in creating Squad Leader he has found himself "building" a system rather than "presenting" one. This way a "very firm, solid game system would be created that would have enough flexible handles that any combat effect could simply be plugged in or out like a replaceable module."

I have taken him at his word. My introduction to the game was such a delight that I began tailoring the game to suit my wants almost immediately. I felt I had stepped back to childhood, maneuvering my toy soldiers through the bunkers and fortifications I had once constructed in my backyard.

Most changes were in graphics, simple alterations in the way the game looked. Much as I had felt compelled to add color and detail to my toy soldiers.

The first alteration was purely accidental. I was still playing the first three scenarios and I had left a game set up in my studio while I worked on another project. When I came back to it, the sunlight striking a portion of the playing field had faded some of the German counters to a lighter shade. I like the faded counters better. They reminded me of how the Germans' field uniforms were said to have faded with wear. "These are my old vets," I decided. I then started to experiment with other changes.

The German S.S. counters were one change. The black counters provided in Cross of Iron were dramatic; they introduced a psychological factor that I found awesome. But still, the black was more appropriate, I felt, for Death Camp guards (or Panzer crews). I experimented with new counters, speckling the colors to resemble the battle dress the S.S. soon adapted for use on the Russian steppes.

The "berserk" units were also revised. While I appreciated their uniqueness, I felt their status shouldn't be so readily obvious to one's opponent. I ordered a second set of regular counters and placed a red dot over the morale factor of each to indicate "berserk" status instead.
Some interesting conclusions can be drawn from these comments; chiefly that some artistic sensibilities should be kept as far away from wargame design as humanly possible.

Some of the comments in the previous blog entry on the Waffen SS may be of interest here. Game players are not often uniform historians as well. My own personal interest in these comments is as both, having published three books on Canadian Army uniforms of the Second World War in addition to some magazine and other articles on the subject. Ivy's comments were, I hope, written for effect, as I've not read that the German uniforms were any more prone to fading than anyone else's, excepting those worn in the desert, which indeed faded rapidly to almost white. The use of faded counters to represent veterans, however, is something that comes up often among SL/ASL players, and others, and is a reasonable comment.

The entire point of the berserk counters he mentions, however (and for those who never played the original SL, they were bright red for high contrast) was to do exactly what Ivy wishes they didn't - "make their status readily obvious to one's opponent."

The maps
The maps illustrated above were part of Ivy's re-imagining of the graphic presentation of Squad Leader. Veterans of the system will recognize some immediate shortcomings as far as applying them to SL/ASL, such as the layout of the walls.

The maps use a one-inch grid - slightly more comfortable than the standard 5/8" SL/ASL boards, but the lack of hexes make them difficult to position units so that covered arcs are clear, and impossible to determine such things as ability to bypass obstacles (a special rule permitting a unit to avoid the cost of terrain in a hex by moving around it, IF there is sufficient room between the obstacle and the hexside to do so).

Ivy's plan was to create eight of these boards, claiming that wargaming "is more than an intellectual exercise. unlike Chess, 'mood' or 'feel' is critical. I need earthy browns and somber grays, barren trees, stubbled fields, washed gullies, muddied and rutted roads and cobble-stoned squares to put me there as much as I need the rules." Citing a "'Springtime in Europe' school of gameboard design", he derided the standard SL boards, saying "No matter what the scenario called for - assaulting a block of rowhouses in Stalingrad or defending a crossroads in the Ardennes - my senses were insulted by the lush greens of a landscape in the full flower of spring."

My final word
From a purely personal standpoint, I enjoy the full flower of spring and don't require my senses to be badgered by depressing imagery to "put me in the mood." I was much disappointed with the 3D world in Eric Young's Squad Assault, for example, because it seemed so drab and depressing; even the simplistic scenery of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord seemed welcoming and inviting. I think there is something to be said for lush greens, frankly, though I would agree that Stalingrad in January 1943 and the Ardennes in December 1944 needn't look that way.

My question to you
Has anyone actually played on these maps marked C and D (one source cites a B and C map) and has anyone ever seen the others that were planned by Mr. Ivy? I do not imagine they were a success for the ASL crowd, though they were billed as being applicable to any game system of similar scale. The buildings are so incredibly large, I suppose even a man-to-man game could have made use of them.

Why There Will Never Be An Official "Wargaming League"

 This is a mirror of an article original appearing at

From time to time, people of various persuasions wonder aloud about that millenial day when there'll be an organization that regularizes wargaming in the same way that the Chess Federation oversees chess and the PGA organizes golf, etc. My response is usually a loud snort and a "not bloody likely." When pressed for more rational comment, I answer as follows:
1. All the leagues, unions, federations and whatever that have professionalized and regularized other sports and games are dealing with only one game with one set of rules...In wargaming, one is faced with hundreds of games...

2. Wargaming is even less a spectator sport than chess (its closest professionalized analog). Chess only penetrated the public consciousness when Bobby Fischer managed to up the ante into the hundred-grand class. Incidentally, the buzz over chess (in the U.S.) died out pretty quickly once Fischer went back into the woodwork. Relatively few people are really interested in chess; even fewer are interested in wargaming. And chess has been around a lot longer than conventional civilian wargaming.

3. Much of what motivates people to play wargames has nothing to do with games and competition, per se. Many people play simply for information or as an exercise. I play for competition (I'll play almost any game with a grim determination to win), but that doesn't mean that I'm the archetypical wargamer; a sizeable number of people don't much care who wins - they just play.

 The preceding, by Redmond A. Simonsen, was printed in Moves in the February/March 1976 issue. (Moves was a house magazine of Simulations Publications Inc., at that time the leading commercial board wargame producer in the world.)

Given that no overseeing regulatory body has even been set up for either wargaming, or as far as I know for any single wargame title, one can conclude Simonsen was quite correct in his conclusion.

As for the "whys", they may be irrelevant, but he thought them worthy of discussion, and so do I. For what it is worth, I feel he makes a good case.

Point 1 - too many titles
His first point is obviously apt; there are far too many titles in existence to imagine any kind of "regularized" oversight of the entire wargaming hobby would be possible. His "hundreds" of titles have grown into "thousands" as a look at will prove.

Point 2 - spectators
Simonsen may be underestimating wargaming's appeal here. At least one commercial television program pitted amateurs against each other in military strategy games. Arguably, reality television like Survivor or The Amazing Race could be easily transitioned into a military theme (and Combat Missions attempted to do exactly that). The popularity of celebrity Poker on television suggests that while Chess may no longer be a large draw, games of skill and chance can still be successfully marketed to an audience, even if the participants are doing nothing more than sitting at a felt table. To date, however, a literal translation of board wargaming - or PC gaming - to a television series has not occurred.

I wouldn't invest my own money into such a thing, but I would not be surprised to hear of someone making a go of it, either.

Point 3 - people don't play to win
I think Simonsen makes an incredibly important point here, but again, it doesn't necessarily preclude the formation of an over-arching organization. Not everyone plays golf or chess to win, either, and that didn't stop the PGA from being formed, or from a professional organization forming.

There are many wargamers who play solely to exercise the imagination - especially now that battlefields can be experienced in simulated 3-D worlds. I've caught myself in the mission editor for Operation Flashpoint or even Combat Mission simply "walking" or flying through one of the stunning maps, or playing through a scenario against the AI just to experience it, without giving thought to the competitive aspects of the game.

But there is no reason to believe that wouldn't be possible if there was a "wargamer's league" either.
 The real issue

Simonsen missed the main point entirely - what need is there for such a league? Avalon Hill did do an admirable job with setting up the AREA rating system, and individual games have grown their own communities with competition circuits and now "gaming ladders" for PC titles. These all operate well on their own, aided by the level of interaction afforded by the internet. One has a hard time understanding what possible benefit a "league" would have. The idea of anyone professionally playing wargames - that is to say, making money doing so - is too absurd to contemplate. But I suppose people said the same thing about football players once upon a time, and they now make more money than doctors, lawyers, policemen, mayors, firemen, paramedics, CEOs, prime ministers and presidents.

Simonsen does dismiss the perceived need for legitimacy that he felt was the root cause of talk about a national PGA-like organization, saying that any desire for public/media recognition (and one would presume acceptance) would matter little given that "there'll always be some ignorant fool standing around to cheap-shot your hobby." If credibility as a hobby is the only reason to form such a league, I'd argue that insecurity simply isn't reason enough.

My final word

Simonsen theorized in his editorial that magazines like Moves, of which he was the Editor, were already a form of international organization that knitted the hobby together. One can conclude that sites like gamesquad now serve the same function. I can understand the desire for greater public acceptance/awareness, but I don't think an international federation could achieve that goal. The involvement of more celebrities like Curt Schilling in the hobby, however, might be a way to draw favourable attention to the hobby and its devotees.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is the Golden Age of Tactical PC Wargaming Over?

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

Tactical-level board wargames are back in vogue, and miniatures are in resurgence. Axis & Allies, Flames of War, ASL, Panzer Grenadier. Board wargame grogs got their hopes up with regards to computer games in the 1980s with M-1 Tank Platoon from Microprose, a mixture of sim and tactical level game that took everything oh-so-seriously, despite the vector graphics. At the time, they didn't look half as silly as they do in hindsight.

Tactical PC wargamers then got bombarded with a lot of mostly mediocre titles (which isn't to say they weren't fun) in the 1980s and 1990s, like Muzzle Velocity and M4 and Panzer Generals, finally got to the good stuff with Close Combat, Combat Mission and Steel Panthers...

...and then all three franchises shot their bolt.

After half a dozen successful titles and versions for the military, Close Combat tried to go 3D - at least two times, with GI: Combat and Eric Young's Squad Assault. The latest release by Matrix was a rehash of the 2D material in a special edition of the Close Combat franchise.

Combat Mission - had three successful titles, then tried to reinvent itself, broaden its fan base, and please everyone in sight from RTS fans to sim junkies to beer and pretzels grognards. They're still picking up the pieces over at Battlefront.

Steel Panthers - three successful games, and then ended up as not one but two freeware releases which really hadn't changed much from the original release, a fairly straight-forward IGO-UGO turn-based 2D tactical game.

The Holy Grail - the game that would become "Squad Leader on the computer" - has proved to be elusive.

On the Decline?
Multi-Man Publishing just put up a 10 scenario pack (with 3 mapboards) for their Advanced Squad Leader boardgame series up for preorder. It hit 700 credit card orders in less than 3 days. For a game with a 500 page rulebook, that you play with little cardboard pieces, in a room with some sweaty fat dude who wants to use your toilet and drop chips on your carpet. But there is obviously still appeal to this grand-daddy of all tactical games. Perhaps there will be nothing to knock it off its perch anytime soon.

The hopes of the old board gamers may not be driving the hobby anymore, but anyone who knows the difference between the two boxes pictured above still has a vested interest in the future of tactical-level PC games. Panzer Command has released its second title, and developer Erik Rutins has been busy on his own forums, at gamesquad, and other places around the internet taking notes, interacting with the gamers, and adding to his to-do list. Will he be the one to decide where the future of tactical wargaming on the PC goes? Will Panzer Command become "ASL for the computer" as some are intimating here at gamesquad's forums?

Or do we really need to have the ability for squad-sized units to be able to swim, ride horses, climb cliffs, rappel down buildings, interrogate prisoners, set fires, clear rubble, ad infinitum?

My Question To You
I finally found my first edition purple boxtop at auction, and though the contents were fourth edition, the box is pure 1st edition. What is the most prized possession in your boardgame collection? And why?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Waffen SS in Tactical Wargames

The depiction of Waffen SS soldiers has been at times a controversial subject in the history of tactical wargaming. The controversy has stemmed not from the sensible dilemma of how best to portray their training, doctrine and actual abilities in combat - these problems are applied to all military forces that designers seek to depict in tactical wargames - but rather from the problem of how to reconcile their record of warcrimes with their military achievements. As most tactical wargames depict fighting at the sharp end, and most war crimes, even those committed by combat units, occurred away from the front line, that element of controversy, at least, ceases to be relevant to the tactical game designer.

Other Problems
In an age of increased sensitivity to issues of racism, equality, and hatred, and an increased ability for mere symbols to acquire power, exception has been taken in some quarters by the granting of special symbols or abilities to Waffen SS troops. Such uneasiness has even extended to German Army units.

For example, M. Evan Brooks, in two PC game reviews, stated online that:

(I-95 CD) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Rick Martinez; 1998; ***
A detailed armor simulation of World War II, it only covered campaigns on the Russian Front. Infantry/combined arms operations still came up short, but the more objectionable aspect of the design was allowing the player to be a member of certain questionable divisions -- while Grossdeutschland was not a Waffen SS division, there is sufficient historical evidence to question its participation in war crimes. (emphasis added)

(A/C/Ap) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Roger Damon; 1985; ***
A tactical simulation of armored warfare on the Eastern Front during World War II, it was marred by historical inaccuracy. Reconnaissance by fire was overemphasized, and opportunity fire was hit-and-miss. It lacked the panache and élan to yield an enduring game experience. Also, I found it somewhat disturbing that the game identified so closely with the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Grenadier Division. Historically, that Division was not formed until 1944, and since game scenarios occurred in 1942, it would seem obvious that the reference is to the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Division; while not a criminal organization like the Waffen SS, "Grossdeutschland" was not adverse to being escorted by Einsatzkommando extermination groups. The close identification with a "tainted" unit left me with an uncomfortable feeling. (emphasis added)
Similar comments have been made in most online forums for games ranging from Combat Mission to Advanced Squad Leader.

Cross of Iron - Special Rules
Of all the tactical games yet published, perhaps the Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader series has gone to the greatest length to impart on the Waffen SS unique capabilities. In general, SL/ASL has exceeded other game systems with its national characteristic rules.

Cross of Iron (Avalon Hill, 1979), the first sequel to Squad Leader, the successful squad-level game published by Avalon Hill in 1977, treated Waffen SS troops with an entire rules section. The Designer's Notes read:

The German SS units were elite formations by virtue of their superior training, and morale. They were not the supermen the German propaganda would have the world believe. On the Eastern Front, however, the Death's Head insignia meant just that for any SS trooper unfortunate enough to fall into Russian hands. Surrender was akin to suicide. As the war progressed and the front drew ever closer to Germany, the SS was composed more and more of desperate men.

From left to right; the original counters in Cross of Iron - a first line squad above a red berserk counter; the "casual" posed squad counters supplied in G.I.: Anvil of Victory; the blue SS from Beyond Valor; the return of the black SS in A Bridge Too Far; and the "purple" SS from Kampgruppe Peiper.

SS troops were depicted in COI by white on black counters, and were given special characteristics, applying only in Eastern Front scenarios. This included a lessened subjection to Desperation Morale penalties (i.e. a penalty on broken units attempting to rally if subjected to enemy fire in the preceding turn), a higher morale rating when broken (indicating that they were quick to rally, the only troops in the Squad Leader system so treated to that point in time), ability to use flamethrowers and demo charges, an exemption from being taken prisoner by Russian units, and a rule that all SS units were subject to the special Berserk rules of the Russians (which made a unit immune to morale checks and required it to charge the nearest enemy unit to engage it in close combat).

Whether or not the rules are particularly accurate, Squad Leader tended to exaggerate national characteristics to give a distinct "flavour" and in that regard, the SS rules were no more or less accurate than those recognizing all Americans as automatically proficient with captured weapons, or later rules that saw British troops treated as "cool under fire."

G.I.: Anvil of Victory
The final game in the original Squad Leader series released in 1983 replaced many of the original counters of the first two games to reflect updates to the rules. The SS counters were rendered in white and black once again, though the Berserk counters were deleted (Berserk status had been extended to all units of all nationalities in Crescendo of Doom (Avalon Hill, 1980), the third entry in the series, though Russian and SS units remained more likely to go Berserk than those of other nationalities.) No changes in capabilities were made.

Advanced Squad Leader
Four rulebooks later, the living game system was consolidated into one "Advanced" rulebook, and, controversially, the unit and system counters were replaced en masse. To those that were paying attention, the SS were replaced with blue counters, though the distinctive SS runes were added to the upper corner.

Capabilities in the new game system were similar to the original; broken-side morale was higher than normal (a capability now extended in the Advanced game to some other nationalities, most notably the Americans); SS units still did not surrender to Russian units, were permitted to carry out the new "Massacre" function - the rejection of an enemy surrender - and could not become Disrupted (a severe type of morale loss) when opposing Russians.

ASL should have been the final incarnation of the SS counters, but the Historical ASL module A Bridge Too Far (MMP, 1999) depicting the fighting at the Arnhem Bridge in September 1944 reintroduced SS units in black, "as a throwback to the old Squad Leader series." Some SS units had been included in Kampfgruppe Peiper, another HASL Module released in two parts, with counters (mis)printed in an odd shade of purple rather than the standard German blue. These additional releases also included German units with values other than the standard 6-5-8 firepower/range/morale, reflecting a more greater recognition that SS units in reality varied greatly in composition, training and equipment.

What Does It All Mean
As someone who went out and bought Cross of Iron in the autumn of 1984 at the age of 15 with hard-earned allowance money, the white on black counters always seemed stark and dramatic, highlighting the reputation that the Waffen SS had for no quarter on the battlefield. The stark contrast, the colour of death, all spoke to the fact that these characters were bad-asses. It was visceral.

Allied troops in the field felt the same way. One could ask the Canadians in Normandy whose unarmed friends were murdered shortly after D-Day, or the Americans after the Baugnez crossroads massacre near Malmedy in the Battle of the Bulge. One soldier in The Royal Winnipeg Rifles was reported as saying that after word of the murders by the 12th SS Division in the early days of the Normandy fighting, the Canadians weren't taking prisoners. "Any SS man we see, we just give him the works, now."

Canadian soldiers of Le Régiment de la Chaudière with an SS prisoner a little the worse for wear, Normandy, 1944. Public Archives of Canada Photo.

Allied troops genuinely believed the SS were badasses too and expected, and often gave, no quarter. The sight of those "evil" black counters is a subtle reminder of that - a history lesson achieved at a glance.

Master Gamers
Not to compare a game to what anyone goes through in battle, but even the over-confidence of a smug, arrogant gamer pulling out a set of black counters kind of matches that smug, arrogant over-confidence the Master Race had when they made their insane attempt to take over the world. I experienced a bit of that myself in 1984, and 1985, playing COI with guys who loved the black counters, who called their intramural volleyball team "Ball Waffe" and drew runes on their school textbooks. It made the games entertaining because you wanted to do nothing more than show them that a black counter didn't impart any special powers or ascendancy over the rules any more than runes or blood group tattoos had granted ascendancy over the realities of 25-pounder or 155mm HE, a company of Shermans, and a battalion of determined men set on doing them bodily harm. I suspect my buddies were equally keen to show me that regimental cap badges and archaic names like The Sherwood Foresters or Fife and Forfar Yeomanry or The Calgary Highlanders didn't make one's troops bulletproof either. The victories - whomever won them - were sweeter given the level of friendly rivalry that those little black counters inflamed.

Other Games
Up Front, billed as the "Squad Leader Card Game", not surprisingly, given its relationship to the board game, had special rules for SS troops, though these were minor. Rule 39.6 gives an SS player two discards if he has taken one, or no, actions during his turn. I'm not aware of other games that impart some special abilities on the SS, other than a reflection of the status of their first 10 or divisions in receiving an increased scale of weapons and equipment by higher attack factors in operational level games, or greater mobility reflected by additional movement factors in those same games.

My Final Word
If there is an argument that the black counters somehow "glorifies" the SS, I personally think it rings false, and loudly. In the end, it is a matter for personal interpretation. If one chooses to get offended by a game piece, that is their decision. There are many "legitimate" reasons to see the SS given a dramatic representation on the gaming table.

My Question To You
Have I missed any? Which tactical games out there depict the SS with special rules?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Rich Historical Tapestry

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:
Within the next few days, the first of what I hope will be many articles will appear on gamesquad under my name. The first is entitled Lessons From The Past and asks the question: what can PC game developers learn from their board game counterparts?


As a way of complementing the article and any follow ons, and to make them interactive, I've decided to also create a blog. I've never been a fan of blogs; the concept initially seemed to me to indicate a frustrated writer who couldn't get published by conventional means because of a lack of something significant to say. That may still apply in some cases, though my view is softening. Given the ability of people with nothing significant to say to actually get published in book form in today's desktop world, the distinctions between online and virtual publishing mean much less. But I think now that blogs are losing their 'newness', and the truly insignificant are moving to Facebook, the blogs are starting to gain in importance once again. It still bothers me that I will probably need to edit this to add an insipid smiley face to indicate that the previous sentence was intended as a joke. Sort of. What isn't a joke are some of the high quality writings of other blog writers here at gamesquad, and the calibre of the other article writers, whom I am honoured to soon number myself among.

Tactical Wargaming

My articles, and this blog, will focus on board wargaming, particularly from a historical slant. And I don't mean the history the games are covering, but the history of the games themselves. To be precise, my interests cover commercially produced board wargames depicting 20th Century combat at the tactical level. That may seem absurdly exclusionary, but by my reckoning includes about 135 titles up to the year 2000, and dozens more since then, and of course increasing every year. I also have an interest in PC games covering the same era and genre and I anticipate some crossover topics being of interest.

There are a lot of titles out there that haven't seen much public discussion in many years; perhaps for a reason. But tactical game development has progressed sufficiently that it would be relatively difficult to do anything, be it on the PC or in paper form, truly unique or revolutionary. Studying history has more value than simple nostalgia; it can help us understand our present and inform our future in addition to being entertaining and educational. These will all be goals here. My first article should illustrate what I'm talking about nicely.

I hope to go a little beyond the normal blog format of simple blocks of text; what I want to do is provide the articles with links back to the blog where supplementary information will be provided - references, supporting quotes, additional images to illustrate points made. One of the great appeals of tactical board wargaming from its beginnings in 1969 was the diversity in graphic design, and hopefully some of that can be captured here. Anyone who recalls the stark impact of the PanzerBlitz boxtop will know what I mean.

In addition to collecting, playing and studying these games, my research has extended to the magazine industry that grew up in support of them. There is a goldmine of information in the house organs, fan 'zines and hobby press that was the precursor of the Internet and was the way that information was shared in the pre-digital age. I hope to share some of that in this space as well. Many of the issues in PC and board gaming today - probably all of them, really - have been discussed in the hobby press for as long as there has been a hobby press.

I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with the community and to hear yours. The timing is fortuitous. Recent discussions at a PC game developers site regarding the state of development of their tactical game series has been strained recently. Many of us "old guard" there had noted there were a lot of lessons to be learned from nearly 40 years and counting of wargaming "history" - and the parentheses are unnecessary, as that is exactly what it is - history. Others remained unconvinced, and a certain obliviousness to history seems natural in all walks of life, so it seems only fair it would extend to our hobby.

My Final Word
And there would be no reason to expect the average board wargamer to know, or perhaps care, what a Tac Game 3 was, or to reflect on the origins of the Infantry Fire Table every time he rolled the dice in Advanced Squad Leader. So we won't try and change the world here, or lead horses to water, just cast a little bit of light on something I myself find interesting. And in the end, a friend of mine who produces books for a living said it best. He publishes what he would like to read, not what he thinks can make money, or what he thinks he can sell - or by extension, what he thinks will inflame, hurt, shock, annoy or disturb others. If others want to read it too, so much the better. I suppose I feel the same way.

Can anyone identify all the games that the counters in my header art are taken from?