Operational Design in Wargaming Chapter 1 part 2-RWAs for the 90's.

Part I

Sidi Omar battle from Game Faire 1999

Following my break from the "Games Workshop Hobby" in the 90's I returned to historical gaming.  Specifically, I went back to my core interests of the American Civil War and WWII.  I began collecting a 15mm Union force and GHQ WWII Soviets using the proceeds from dispensing my GW collection.  (oh had I held on to many of those models....)  My friend Angus was collecting the Confederates and Germans respectively allowing us to mass some sizable forces rapidly.  (This would also teach me to collect both sides for any era as well, as when he moved off I found myself with unable to use those collections.)

Our primary rules for ACW games were Johnny Reb III and Fire and Fury.  I liked the basic mechanisms in JRIII especially the simultaneous use of orders chits to avoid some of the "I go, you go" issues as well add some fog of war.  I disliked the figure count mechanism for the fire tables as I found they tended towards players trying to game the system by created dense super-units with plenty of figures.  (I played a few games at a local convention where the hosts played a fusion of Fire and Fury with JRIII that had confederate stands with 6 figures per stand devastating the Unions 3-4 figure stands) I generally preferred Fire and Fury as there were fewer overall modifiers to learn and I found games focused more on the fire and movement and less on rules interpretations/applications.

  These games also represented the slow transition (for me at least) from Rules dense, unwieldy simulations to faster resolution games for the black powder era..  Both rules did require a significant collection to fight most of their scenarios which, coupled with the number of decisions required and rules tables, meant games were rarely played to a satisfactory conclusion.

WWII was kind of a mess with Tank Charts and ASL as the primary rule systems.    Tank Charts required cross-referencing ammunition/gun to armor at specific locations and was very chart heavy.  Games were heavily influenced by by technical capabilities resulting in very one sided games on the early war Eastern Front for the Russians, and the wholesale slaughter of Italians in the North African desert.  The game required vast sums of terrain lest a later war Panther or Tiger arrive and slaughter everything in sight.

ASL is a study in overdoing it for me.  The density of those rules reached such a crescendo at one point that I remember forgetting who was firing at who. I think there may be individual rolls for stumbling on uneven terrain for soldiers moving across streets.  (with modifiers for boot type, date/location/shift(day, night, swing) of manufacture, general wear, and method of lacing.)    The end state is that we found ourselves looking for better ways to utilize our micro-armor.

Thus there were three games that served to change my approach to the hobby when I stumbled upon them.  First up was actually a WWII Naval Game I played at a convention:

Game:  Shipbase III (Armorsoft 1993)
Scale:  Tactical Naval Combat 1890 - 1945, 1 model -= 1 ship.
RWA:  Computer Moderated Gameplay, Excellent fog of war, ease of play for massive scenarios.

I regret not having a computer that can run this game anymore.  (I still have it on 3.5" floppy)  It essentially allowed you to build a data base to hold all the ships in both fleets.  Players moved their ships on the table and then reported their shots.  The controller then only needed to enter in the range, guns that were firing and aspect of fire for target/shooter.  The computer added all the modifiers, reported damage and applied it to the target ship.  It was excellent for playing massive engagements because it took care of all of the record keeping.  It also allowed for Fog of War in that a game master could call out "multiple hits, fires started" to the shooter, and then share the actual damage with the owner.  In the moderated games we played, the controller would print out a summary at the end of each turn for both sides to reflect changes on damaged vessels.  This would leave the other side somewhat in the dark as to the actual damage inflicted unless it was something obvious.  The time period allowed for a broad swath of history to be represented and resulted in my building both WWII and WWI naval flotillas with GHQ and CinC ships.  At one point I recall Jon and I using the rules for a battle with his Spanish-American war fleet collection.

The only downsides to me for this game were that the DOS interface was somewhat clunky.  You had do navigate several panes, that would have been significantly improved with a windows style Graphic User Interface.  Also, the game utilized the idealized Rates of Fire reported for the various weapons systems resulting in a lethal battlespace for lighter ships.  Battleships would habitually split their Primary, Secondary and Tertiary batteries between targets, knowing that the destroyers would not last the turn.  I remember actually hacking the mod files at one point to reduce those rates of fire, as well as modify the ship lists to reflect historical upgrades.  I have tried Command at Sea, Victory at Sea and other rules sets, but still have not found one that I am happy with. I have yet to see computer assisted game-play done as well, as I think many of the newer games tend to automate to the point tha the miniatures are redundant.  I would love to see this game upgraded for the modern age.

Game:  Spearhead (Arty Conliffe/Quantum Printing, 1995)
Scale:  Battalion and above Microarmor.  (1 model = 1 platoon)
RWA:  Abstraction of rules to make WWII microarmor playable, mission oriented orders system.

Spearhead remains my favorite set of rules for microarmor of any era.  Each piece represents a platoon, and the ranges are dropped down to allow some tactical depth on the tabletop.  (A Tiger I platoon for example has a 18" range, which allows it to dominate a section of the battlefield, rather than the whole board.)  Damage is also abstracted with elements being suppressed or destroyed.  The TO&Es provided favored actual representative forces and tends to move away from the "Tankograds" favored in other rules sets.  (i.e. we actually used Infantry!)  Overall I found that the rules tend to focus less on the influence of technology which allows for fire and movement on the table.

The other innovative piece I found for this game was the use of command lines, and orders on the tabletop.  Each player had to sketch out their operational concept on the map (Axis of advance, defensive sectors, etc) and had to stay within those orders unless they passed a command roll to change it.  Changing orders was relatively easy for Germans and Americans, and much harder for Soviets to reflect the flexibility of their mission planning and/or communications capabilities.  I liked the fact that it forced players to plan well, and reduced the impact of the god's eye view of the tabletop.  Games tended to play more like their historical counterparts rather than rapid thrusts and counterthrusts by each side.  I tend to favor games with an orders mechanism, and this one was simple enough that it could be enforced without bogging down game play.

The D6 system tends to run into some problems with the relative effects of modifiers creating some serious over-match.  (Especially in Modern Spearhead)  I tend to favor using D10s as I am loath to apply 6+ rules with D6.  (i.e.  you need to roll a 6, followed by a 4+ to suppress the target)  Also, the flank attack rules (where you can hold one of your forces in reserve, to have them appear on your opponent's flank later) tend to treat the battlefield as an island rather than units with adjacent forces.  They also tend to reward creeping along the board edge to protect your flanks.  One method I used to overcome that, was to ID the adjacent units and allow units creeping on the board edge to be engaged by unseen AT guns or tanks.

I still enjoy this rule set, and it is the basis for my own Brigade Combat Team rule set that I use for modern microarmor gaming.  My entire microarmor collection is based around this platoon scale.

Game:  Battleground WWII (Easy Eight Enterprises, 1997)
Scale:  WWII Skirmish, 1-3 squads per side, 1 model = 1 soldier
RWA:  Effective blend of fire an movement, phased initiative.  

Lastly is this little gem that I found in the Basement of Hodgen's in downtown Moscow, ID.

Battleground WWII is a skirmish rule set that boarders on a light RPG.  It is heavily counter dependent in that it allows for multiple fire methods (raking, plunging, opportunity) and effects from fire.  Where it shines is in doing urban fights between small infantry groups.  The initiative system is based on random card draws for each fire team where units can take up to two actions.  For example, a section can stand up (1 action) and then move 3" (1 action) and then fall prone (free).  Another team can then crawl 2" (1 action) and Fire (1 action) or do aimed fire (2 actions).  Units can also go on opportunity fire, and MMGs can lay down suppressive fire to cover likely firing positions.  This actually allows for real infantry tactics on the table.  The fire affects range from suppression to gory death, with detailed morale results to support the effects of close combat.  The rules make it relatively easy to hit an area and suppress the target, but relatively difficult to actually harm a soldier.  This is where it really shines for me, as it promotes real tactics.  Removing suppression, for example, requires an action which means that suppressed units tend to get bogged down, and are forced to pull back as they get flanked.  The rules for taking complex actions actually blur the line between a skirmish game and light role-play, which allows for creativity in problem solving urban scenarios.  I ran a set of linked games at Enfilade! several years back to reflect Airborne troops trying to take a burned out city.  Players had a great time, and I was able to even runs some games as moderated scenarios with me controlled the Germans.  Watching the squad leaders argue over how to locate and deal with a hidden sniper was the highlight of the game for me.

I adapted this game for use in modern games to include running some scenarios for the former Yugoslavia in the late 90s.  The limited lethality make them excellent for doing modern games which tend to be heavy on the bullets down range and WIAs, but lighter on the KIAs.

Where the game tends to bog down is in the level of detail that it attempts.  Each weapon gets its own line of the hit chart, and there is a separate effects chart.  Explosive templates are divided into rings with reduced effects as you move out from the center.  You have to mark the type of round loaded in tank guns, weapons jam, TCs can be unbuttoned, buttoned or out of the turret, etc.  Want to call for fire?  Make a communications roll to establish contact.  Then make an availability roll to get the rounds.  How about air support?  Separate rolls.  Many of the scenarios in the multiple scenario books they did require far more models than I think could be played in a reasonable time scale.

So there are my first three Revolutions in historical Wargaming for the 1990's.  Shipbase allowed for quick play of large battle with Naval miniatures.  Spearhead made microarmor fun again by focusing on command level decisions and simplifying the results.  Battleground became my goto rules for skirmish gaming as they instituted phased initiative and made the game about more than just eliminating the other side's figures.  I could do much longer posts about each game to include a litany of problems, but we will save that for another day.  Next up I will take a look at the 21st century approach to the hobby.  


  1. Battle of Santiago using Shipbase was fun. Well, more fun for the Americans, no doubt. It would be good to get that collection of warships back onto the gaming table. I have WTJ's Quickfire that I have been wanting to try.

    Your advice about building both sides is a good one. A plan I often follow even when my original plan was to stick to only one combatant. Oh well. Having both sides always always play when the other participant is unavailable.

    As for ASL. I played SL/COI/COD/GI a lot and enjoyed it very much. When ASL game ought, I tried it a few times, didn't care for it and stuck with the original series. Still, a great game. REVOLUTIONARY, for sure.

    I recall our games of Spearhead only vaguely. A copy of Spearhead recently arrived in-house in a bundle of old rulesets. Next time you want to give them go, I will have something to read to help reacquaint myself.

    Interesting series you have here...

    1. My favorite memory of ASL was watching two guys play at a local convention. They had a small 12x24" board in the middle of the table flanked by a massive stack of boxes on either side. Each sat poised next to a 4" binder for quick reference....

      As for the Battle of Santiago, I think out game followed the historical example fairly well. I would be interested in digging into Spearhead again. It has been several years since I actually took out my WWII microarmor collection.

    2. The Santiago result mirrored the historical outcome quite closely.

  2. Interesting despite both ACW and WW2 being outside my usual zones of intrerest!


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