Operational Design in Wargaming Chapter 1 part 3 - RWA's of the 21st century.

Speeding up this series seems appropriate as that appears to be the theme for games in the 21st century.  Overall, I think modern games tend to favor rapid resolution over technical detail with more focus on only 1-2 aspects of game play.  Much has been made of the rapid pace of the modern age, video games supplanting the tabletop, and  the influence of board games, but I think it really comes down to rules designers connecting with their audiences.  Digital communications allows for rapid feedback from users and allows new developers to identify trends.

This has accelerated the evolution of game design, but not necessarily revolutionized it.  Popular games like Flames of War, Black Powder, and Bolt action seem like historically themed versions  of existing Science Fiction or Fantasy properties.  The death of Warhammer Ancient Battles seemed to spawn a litany of  spiritual successors that wanted to build off its popularity and game mechanics.  (Topic: Hail Caesar is the Ptolemy to War and Conquest's Seleucus, discuss.)  The D6 has established its primacy over all other forms of random number generation.  This has also caused a relative homogenization in the industry where the most significant variation is between rolling buckets of D6s or rolling one D6 + 1-4 modifiers as a means of combat resolution.  Multiple page QRS and written orders seem to be the biggest casualties of the modern age.

So with rule sets falling within 1 standard deviation, what do I consider revolutionary changes?  I selected three games embrace the simplification trends of the current age, but also introduce an innovative mechanic to make them unique and engaging.

Game:  Command and Colours  et al.  
Scale:   1-4 stands represent a regiment of troops.
RWA:  Fog of war, bridging the gap between board and tabletop games, making ancients interesting.

Richard Borg hit a home-run.  His board games use a mixture of simple dice resolution and card based activation to make for compelling games in whatever genre they are modelling.  (Ancients, Fantasy, WWII, Samurai, Napoleonics, coming soon: Medieval).  I started with the Ancients game, and was immediately hooked.  I have always enjoyed the look of Ancient armies, but there was one significant problem:  I found Ancients wargaming terrifically dull.  It always seems to come down to two walls of spear standing toe to toe as my opponent and I  roll off.  I am hard pressed to justify the armies when it feels like we could just play craps instead.  The card based activation introduced a simple friction mechanic that simulates one of the key aspects of command that most games ignore:  No matter how hard you try, some subordinates just don't listen.  They decide they are going to do their own thing, and you have to learn to deal with it.  A commander of mine once put it succinctly:

"Some NCOs are just Non Commissioned Obstacles.  You have to learn to breach or bypass them."    

The augmentations to the game for other eras also work excellently.  I think the Dragon Deck for Samurai Battles, combined with the Honor tokens do an excellent job providing the right feel for the era.  My 15mm Samurai collection languished for over a decade as I could not find a set of rules I liked.  Most importantly these rules are very simple for new players to understand, which got my sone playing with me as well one of my Brothers.  (something that has not happened in over 30 years)

Game: Impetus
Scale: 1 stand = 1 unit
RWA:    Effective simplicity, small figure count, single unit basing and broad era rules.

This one was tough for me.  I still have not decided if I consider it truly revolutionary or just evolutionary.  It makes the list as it caused me to reconsider how I collect my armies.  In the past my armies required at least a few hundred figures spread out across dozens of multi-stand units.  Impetus caused me to condense down to single stand elements, and that spread to my other collections as well.  An excellent example is my new Egyptian Army.  I would not have attempted to build this army on a whim for a game like WAB.  However, the relatively small entry cost meant that I could easily put together a credible force to face Jon's looming Assyrian horde.

Game:  Lion Rampant
Scale: Skirmish, 1 unit = 6-12 models.
RWA:  Sword and Spear Skirmish that works.

Lion rampant has hit become my go-to game for small unit medieval and far east Asian games.  They managed to succeed for me where Saga could not.  The rule mechanics are simple for new players, but complex enough to give a good game.  It manages a good blend of Skirmish level combat without getting bogged down in book keeping.  The unit activation rules allow for a challenging command situation, with the possibility for some streaks of bad luck to end a game rapidly.  The flexibility of the game allowed me to translate it for use with my Korean and Japanese 28mm collection as well as a surprisingly fun fantasy game for Halloween a few years back.  (Before the release of Dragon Rampant)  The largest endorsement can be seen in the picture above.  I can play it with my son without the need for lots of explanation.

That concludes this exploration into what I consider revolutionary changes to gaming.  These are all very personal examples, in that they changed my approach to gaming rather than entire markets.

There were several other games I considered for the list, but decided they did not have the same enduring affect on my interpretation of the hobby.  In alphabetical order:

  • Anatomy of Glory - Jon's custom rules for Napoleonics had unique mechnisms for changing orders and modelling damage without just pulling stands.  Still my favorite D100 based combat resolution model.

  • Babylon 5 A Call to Arms -Mongoose publishing produced a fast play star-ship combat game with a simplified point system that resulted in fun games that could be played in a couple hours.

  • Chain of Command - The Jury is still out for me on this game.  I really enjoy the emphasis on command level decisions and spartan rules.  I think Richard Clarke is becoming one of my favorite game designers, and I am looking forward to trying Sharpe Practice at some point.

  • Man O' War - GW's first attempt at Fantasy Naval combat did an excellent job of blending simple design with campaign play.  It and Necromunda essentially killed the mainstream GW games for me.

  • Saga - Use of resource dice to limit unit decisions made for an innovative game mechanism that made Dark Age gaming for than just a roll-off between two stationary shield walls.  Its a pity I couldn't find an opponent.

So what have I learned?

This study has definitely informed where I want to take this series.  In looking at my predilections for gaming it seems I have some trends

  1. Focus on decisions that matter
  2. Pick one aspect of conflict you want to simulate.  Abstract the distractions.
  3. Keep my models on the table.
  4. Make a plan ahead of time, then see how you can execute it when adversity strikes.  

Hopefully you have found some of this interesting, feel free to disagree in the comments, or let me know what you think the most Revolutionary game mechanics are.  I would be interested to see some new stuff.


  1. Interesting thoughts, and I'm looking forward to more in your series. I too am a big fan of Commands & Colors: Ancients. I don't think it's great if you want a 'simulation', but as a game is it magnificent. I particularly like that it rewards thinking about tactics and allows people to develop their own style of play. I used to enter into the online VASSAL tournaments and the ideas that some people had on how to run armies was a real eye-opener.

    Regarding innovation, for me, Phil Sabin's Lost Battles is a rich mine. It's not everyone's cup of tea (and for a good proportion of people the rules seem impenetrable), but the ideas are brilliant, and the way the system recreates the battles has to be seen to be understood.

    Anyway, cheers, and really enjoyed reading this.

    1. Aaron, I am one of those finding Lost Battle impenetrable. Really wanted to get into this but simply could not. I guess I need a mentor.

    2. CCA simulates one thing fairly well: Forcing me to execute my plan within the external constraints created by dealing with other human beings. The rules reflect better commanders by giving them more options. I find it enjoyable and engaging.

      I have not seen Lost Battles before, and it looks like an interesting read. It might also help to inform my opinions on the limits of simulation in gaming.

    3. Sabin's "Simulating War" is another book you might find interesting for study.

  2. Both Commands & Colors and Impetvs I classify as REVOLUTIONARY. Both got me building and playing armies and periods I never considered before. Both always give entertaining games regardless of the tactical situation presented. In both, the final outcome is in balance until the last die is cast. Games are never over until they are over. The plug of AoG is much appreciated. Remember when I first told you the combat tables were based on Poisson distributions and volumes of fire/activity during a discrete period of time?

    Another interesting and thoughtful piece, Jake!

  3. This time you have eras I know and rules I own (Impetus, CCA) even though I haven't played them.

    I Have to agree with the appeal of apply the Poisson distribution to wargaming! :-)

    From my earliest days in the hobby I have had a dislike of "D6 to hit" rules with saving throws. To me, lazy design. Combine it all into one roll. will ya?!

    In my case, the revolutionary design that changed the hobby for me was unquestionably Bob Jones' Piquet. While certainly not without its flaws, it is chock full of innovative ideas... asymmetrical impetus, variable sequence of play and very clever use of cards, opposed variable polyhederal die rolls, finite morale pool, and more. it is hopwever, much more of a "narrative" styl;e of game than a rigid simulation.

    1. I've got Piquet, but never had the opportunity to play. As for the "roll to hit, roll to wound, roll to save" mechanics, I listened to an interview with the designers for the original Warhamer that it was their idea for incorporating in a "D20" probability spread like D&D using 3d6 instead. (It was the 80's) It is an interesting idea, but suffers from the exponential increase in rolls and modifiers.

    2. Well, perhaps some day I will have to travel West to initiate you in
      the dark side", LOL! It is quite a different game!


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