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.