Saturday, 27 August 2011

Sticks, Carrots, Method Acting and Wargames

Some recent comments about how wargame rules should be written has sparked the rather unusual title, anyway. But the question lying behind it is germane: how do you write wargame rules which are, in some way, historical? What rules can force the players to use the forces at their disposal in a more or less historical way?

This is actually a difficult thing to achieve. To take the final method first, the idea behind ‘method acting’ is that the players have a deep understanding of the period and therefore act in character for a general of the time anyway. This is a very attractive idea, but it is rather difficult to see how it can be achieved in practice.

Firstly, most wargamers I know do not focus on one period. One week they could be a Roman general against the Germans, the next they could be commanding the Napoleonic British against the French. Furthermore, historical match ups are not necessarily the norm. How would an Aztec general have reacted if faced with a Thirty Years War Swedish army? I’ve no idea, and I’m fairly sure that no-one else will have either. So we cannot assume deep knowledge of the period for these reasons.

Secondly, as mentioned before, even if we do have a deep understanding of a historic period, we still bring our own eyes to bear on it. I’ve mentioned before the idea that we appropriate history to form our own narratives, and that is as true of a wargamer (or rule writer) that focuses on a narrow period of time as it is of anyone else.

So we cannot assume that a wargamer is going to arrive at the table ready to act in period.

The second method to consider is the ‘carrot’ method. This writes rules to make the player act in period. An example would be to make, in English Civil War rules, musketeers unsupported by pike vulnerable to being ridden down by cavalry. This can be done by, for example, giving musketeers fighting cavalry a bonus if they have a pike base on their flank.

The example just given was used in DBR, and, for such a simple rule, had a surprisingly nasty effect. Instead of forming units of [musket][pike][musket], players did odder things, such as units of [musket][pike] only, or alternating musket and pike bases down the line. Players did not method act as the rules were better for them if they didn’t. It may well be, of course, that the play testers did method act and so the weaknesses were not detected until release. But as a carrot, and given that musketeer bases are quite powerful in DBR, it was a bit of a failure. The carrot led to some odd results.

Another writer’s tactic is to simply abstract away this sort of difficulty. This is what we did in Polemos: ECW. Muskets and pikes are on the same base, just in different rations. This is more ‘stick’ like; it forces the players to conform to historical tactics by not giving any alternative. In my view this does work better, but complaints could be made that it is too constricting, and that it is not possible to split and merge pike and shot during the game.

How, then, can rules be constructed, rewarding historical tactics but without constricting the players too much? This is the most difficult balance to achieve, and I think no given set of rules will actually achieve it perfectly; the best that can be hoped for is a balance between stick and carrot, constraint and reward.

As an example, consider Romans and tribal forces facing each other. When I did this for the Polemos Romans rules I had to consider the fact that Romans fought in lines (OK, with reserves behind, but basically a series of lines) while tribal forces tended to fight in blocks. Evidence from other games suggests quite strongly that most wargamers like to fight in lines, and I’ve seen a number of ancients wargames where the tribal force looks more like Wellington’s army at Waterloo than an ancient force.

What then can be done? What I have done is to fix the movement rules to make it more expensive to move wider tribal forces than narrower, while the Romans can move any width of force at more or less the same cost. So far as I can see, this has worked in play testing. It does not force the tribal player to fight in deep formations; it just makes it much easier so to do.

So is this historical? The sources are not that good for this sort of fighting, but it does seem to be the case that tribal forces aimed to punch a hole in the Roman line, and that this was what the Roman commanders were concerned about. A massed charge across the entire field was doomed to failure (see Boudicca’s last battle for evidence), while a picked spot for assault (e.g. the Germans at Teutourg Wald) might succeed. In order to survive, the Romans have to have a second line to cover the break through spots. Nobody is forced into this, but the rules imply that this might work best and most cheaply.

So, do we go for carrot or stick? A combination seems to be best. If we can manage it, a mix of incentive and dis-incentive can work to balance the wargamer’s natural desire to play the game like the maps in history text books, with nice clean blocks of troops, and to use a-historical tactics to gain an advantage. The problem is, of course, that a-historical tactics, in history, sometimes worked, and were then termed a surprise. So that has to be covered too, because they are not a surprise for us who have all read the same history books.

Method acting would be the best, of course, but that really leads to role playing and re-enacting, both of which are different ball games, really.


  1. I think one way to do this is to, in skeletal outline form, outline historical tactics, and grant a mild bonus to the use of said tactics.

    This lends the historical input with impetus, while still allowing the player the ability to wield their forces in a-historic (as far as we know) ways against forces they have never (or could never have) faced.

    * Phalanx: blah-blah-blah = +2 die-mod v. blah-blah
    * etc.

    * Line Formation: blah-blah-blah = +2 die-mod v. blah-blah
    * etc.

    and so forth.

  2. Yes, I think this would work, and it actually reminds me of another idea here of commanding only lines. so we could have

    'Wing line 1: [some sort of order set] +2
    Center line 1: ...'



  3. "Method acting would be the best, of course, but that really leads to role playing and re-enacting, both of which are different ball games, really."

    When I was thinking about it, I was inspired by the ideas explicit or implicit in some Paddy Griffith games - the megagames, the free kriegspiels th TEWTs etc. In some wargames rules (not Polemos!) there is quite a lrge proportion of 'history' to 'rules'. I wondered whether instead of the general history one finds, this space might be used to explain how say a SYW commanded - and then some basic framework rules for how to run the game and work out the combats, even between two friends. Nebulous, I know!



  4. I think that this is what was in the back of my mind too. The problem is that wargameer have to operate at different levels - generals, unit commanders and then also doing the abstract combat resolution.

    The only answer is some sort of committee game where the senior commanders only get information from their units by note, unless they go out and look directly. These to, I believe, work, but are not what most wargamers want, most of the time anyway.