Operational Design in Wargaming Chaper 4 Friction - What is that guy doing? Who told him to do that?

"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." -Clausewitz

We'll call him Carl, or Karl, or Karol, or Карл, or even Ka'rel (for Fantasy or scifi players.)  Anyone with military experience has run into this guy:

  • The plan is straight forward, everything should be moving fine.  You look out from the TC position of your tank and see that one tank just. sitting. there.  All you can think is "What the hell are they doing?"   Carl.
  • You're on a road march and the vehicle in front of you stops.  The whole column waits for 10 minutes, suddenly you start moving again.  Why did you stop?  What just happened?  Carl.  
  • The tanks are on line.  You are ready to assault the objective.  Suddenly the company frequency is flooded by a heated argument between  a platoon sergeant and his driver who is hot-miking on the company push.  No one else can communicate.  Carl.
  • Your battalion is pushing through the valley, things are going smoothly. You look behind you to see that someone has started a grass fire that is threatening to overtake the entire formation.   Carl.
  • You're company is supporting an infantry battalion on the offense.  You've successfully worked your way around the flank of the opposing brigade.  Their rear area is wide open.  Suddenly the drive sprocket on the lead vehicle flies off and goes rolling off the canyon wall.  The vehicle is now blocking the road preventing any bypass.  Who did the maintenance on that vehicle?  Carl.  
  • The division commander has briefed his plan.  2nd brigade will execute a feint to force the deployment of the enemy reserve to allow 1st brigade to punch through and drive for the Inter-German Border.  All of the brigades have done their assessments, made their plans and provided a brief back.  The battle begins and 2nd brigade launches a headlong charge to push through to Moscow.  What just happened?  Carl.

One of the more popular and/or controversial topics in designing war games is that of friction.  Many a gamer or designer will thumb through their dog-eared copy of "on war" to expound of their view of of the Clausewitzian Fog of War.  The discussion really boils down to two different concepts:  

  • Uncertainty:  The imperfect knowledge of terrain, enemy disposition and intent. 
  • Friction: The myriad factors that sit between "what was your plan" and "what really happened" during the after action review.  

Modeling uncertainty is a separate, complex issue I intend to address in later chapters (Especially the role of reconnaissance).  I will set it aside for now.  Instead I would like to address the concept of Friction.  According the Clausewitz, friction is
"the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper."

Here is a collection of obligatory dead guy quotes from the man himself... 
"the light of reason is refracted in a manner quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation." Only the exceptional soldier keeps his incisive judgment intact during the heat of battle.
"If no one had the right to give his views on military operations except when he is frozen, or faint from heat and thirst, or depressed from privation and fatigue, objective and accurate views would be even rarer than they are." 
 "...[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging...." 
In short, friction can be attributed to

  • The human response to danger.  People respond to violence and the threat of imminent death differently.  Go figure...
  • The intense physical demands of combat operations.  Entropy in action.  This includes the wear and tear on men, machines and beasts of burden.  Physical demands lead to intellectual and morale degradation as well. 
  • Unclear information.  Beyond just uncertainty and the fog of war, this relates to the difficulty in conveying information and instructions in way that is clearly understood.  The one constant of every After Action Review I have participated in is that communication needs improvement. There are a few select quotes that come to mind "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."  and "The first report is always wrong."  
  • Interpersonal relations/conflict.  Some leaders are convinced that they know better, regardless of the situation.  Others have ulterior motives.  Some are just stupid.  A critical element to leadership is getting subordinates to do what they are told. 
  • The failure of logistics.  As an Armor company XO, I had four sacraments:  Fuel, Ammunition, Maintenance, and Medical resources(35MM).  The disruption of sustainment  operations is worthy of its own update.
  • Accidents of fate.  Murphy's Law

So how do we model this on the game board?

I have found that a benefit of this intellectual exercise (re: this entire series), is that it provides insight into why common game mechanics in the hobby exist.  Some of these include:

  • Morale  -Reflects both human response and physical demands.
  • Disorder  - Demonstrates the confusion/limitations imposed by physical demands.
  • Response Rolls - Related to the above
  • Written Orders/ Order Rolls -Combines unclear information with interpersonal challenges.  
  • Initiative Rolls -More abstract idea of capturing the 'flow' of the engagement.
  • Random Activation -As above, forces the player to respond events as the are presented rather than desired.
  • Leader Ratings - Essentially rating a leader based on his ability to respond to friction in the course of the battle.  

Other games take it a step further.  Two Fat Lardies, for example, emphasize battlefield friction as a selling point:  Chain of Command uses mechanisms like dice pool activation and randomization for movement.  SAGA uses a similar dice pool activation system to restrict player choice.  Command and Colors uses the card deck to restrict actions.  The challenge seems to be finding a way to balance the randomness with some determinism.  The desire to model every aspect of friction can result in games that feel totally out of the player's control; where probability rules and tactics drools.

To return to the constant drumbeat, I think the key is to determine what aspects you want to model in your games.  For me, I think the most valuable piece is to limit my own ability to respond to changes on the battlefield with omniscient clarity.  I like using a pre-game orders process like Spearhead because it benefits making a good plan and emphasizes the need for maintenance of aim.  (Maintaining focus on your initial objectives rather than chasing about the battlefield.)  The historical quality of a leader can then be reflected in how the game permits them to alter the plan, and the subordinate's ability/desire to accept those changes.   Systems like the dice pool in Chain of Command also do a fairly good job of limiting my choices, while not making the game a slave to random chance.

I tend to favor concepts like disorder, that reflect the need to rearm/refit/reorganize following a major action, rather than units that push on to seize objective after objective.  I also tend to favor phased initiative (like battle tech) over IGO/UGO styles which make one entire side suffer from the results of a single die roll.

Otherwise, I tend to prefer limiting the random outcomes in favor of finding ways to highlight the UNCERTAINTY of conflict.  I.e.  I would rather spare limited complexity to find ways to reflect what can be seen on the table, versus what could actual be known on the real battlefield.  That, however, is a subject for a later time.

Take us out of here Carl.....
"Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counter-weight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary. Moreover, there is hardly a worthwhile enterprise in war whose execution does not call for infinite effort, trouble, and privation; and as man under pressure tends to give in to physical and intellectual weakness, only great strength of will can lead to the objective. It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity."


  1. This is a great post, it should be studied by all those games where everyone moves 6" every time on command.

    1. I am not a fan of those set movements. The key thing is determining how much control your willing to sacrifice to get the feeling your looking for.

  2. Excellent stuff, Jake!

    Finding the appropriate fulcrum point between complete randomness and complete determinism in game design is a task requiring skill and experience. Too much friction and the game becomes unplayable, frustrating, and not very satisfying. Too little friction and the game tends towards monotony.

    In your listing of typical game mechanisms that tend to "simulate" friction on the table, do some of these attributes measure the same thing? Do we tend towards too many friction inputs or not enough? Are these attributes independent or covarying? Perhaps, answers to these questions will be in your next in this interesting series?

    1. Those are excellent questions, and perhaps worthy of an addendum to this chapter. The struggle for me is separating out the 'frictional' mechanisms from the 'fog of war' and 'period specific' mechanisms.

  3. Another very thought provoking post. Having spent the first 30 years or so of my wargames career playing rules with low randomness and fog of war, and the next 17 playing mostly games with a high fog of war/friction component, I much prefer the later. The proper balance, which will of necessity vary from person to person, is the greatest challenge in writing rules today. IMHO, of course!

    1. I have tended the same way over my experience. With the explosion of rule sets out there, I think the real challenge is for the player to find the rules that suit them. Writing Napoleonics rules must be like producing figures: Only a select group of people are going to like the scale you chose, the style of sculpting and the unit selection.


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