A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Grand Tactical Game - Clever but Not Useful

There is an ancient Scottish joke about James Watt (of steam engine fame). I apologise in advance if you have heard it before, or if it isn't amusing, or if you are American and believe that Edison invented the steam engine. It seems that young James had an astonishingly enquiring mind when he was a young man. One morning, so the story goes, he was so fascinated watching the kettle boiling that he missed his train to work.

That's it. It's quite a short joke - maybe that's all it has in its favour. However, it strikes a chord with me - it is very easy to hide yourself away in a cave somewhere and brilliantly deduce stuff that everyone knows already because their granny told them.

Since the topic will become a requirement for my Grand Tactical rules in the near future, I wanted to spend a little blog space considering the merits and pitfalls of Command rules. It's been done before, but I want to have another go at thinking this through from basic principles - this may be entirely for my own amusement...

To start with, a cautionary tale. There have been times when I've realised that my wargames are missing something important. A few years ago I was watching the Sergei Bondarchuk Waterloo film for the umpteenth time (isn't it great?) when I realised that my battles would be improved enormously if I had some way of allowing cavalry to get out of control and charge for the horizon. So I did some fairly extensive reading, both of history and of rule sets, and I decided the rules which handled the matter best were (you maybe guessed) The Big Battalions. Since my main wargame rules are computerised, it took a fair amount of grunt to build “recklessness” into the game, but I was pleased with the way it played out in testing. For the next year I had a pretty sophisticated set of monitoring logic in there which checked all cavalry actions, and which (I assume) continued to give reasonable results, and you know what? In a year, not a single cavalry unit ever got out of control. Not once. Every time I fought a battle, all cavalry combat was beset with questions about whether they had a general with them (and the aggressiveness/restraint of each general was well known, as was the quality of the units), and the benefit to the game, as it turned out, was not worth all the bloody effort. The rule was clever enough, was intended to simulate something which appeared to be historically valid, and yet in the long run it wasted a lot of time with scarcely any effect at all. Readers who have seen Foy's Fifth Law will know what I think of that sort of thing.

And there have been other examples. One, for which I have tried very hard not to fall down the same trapdoor, is the nippy matter of Command rules.

So what's all that about? Well, I think it's an attempt to stop wargame generals having a level of control which is completely out of whack with what would have been possible on a real historical battlefield. As the cliché explanation goes, there were no radios, no helicopters - precious little visibility at all, sometimes. Big armies with many layers of commanders, some of them lost, some of them stupid, all of them under unimaginable pressure and constrained to communicate by means of written notes carried around Hell by the idiot sons of the nobility (in the British case, at least). It is little wonder that the 2-evening refight of Ligny seems to boil down to half-an hour's concentrated action, if you analyse it just by theoretical rates of march - the real guys at real Ligny certainly spent most of their time waiting for instructions, wondering what the blazes was going on, or advancing towards a cloud of smoke, or all of these. I guess they did not spend many periods of time advancing 12 inches in column minus 3 inches for crossing a wall.

Chaos, my friends. Chaos. That's where the Command rules come in - anything which gets us away from the idea of a perfectly choreographed, all-pieces-move-at-once game of chequers has to be good. However, it is impossible to simulate all that vagueness in an exactly realistic manner, and most of the rules which are in vogue appear to address it by introducing an element of disruption in various ingenious ways.

The most common approach seems to be the use of a Command Radius - a general of a given calibre can immediately influence units within a certain distance of where he is, and that distance is big if he is Davout, and is small if he is Cuesta. OK - it must work quite nicely, because lots of people do this, but realistic? There is an implication of telepathic or force-of-will communication in there. If Davout really can influence subordinates 35 inches away this move, then the only way this could happen would be by sending an ADC, and it would take that fellow a little while to get there - maybe 35 x 20 paces divided by the light cavalry charge move (etc etc), and that is ignoring the need to write something and read it at the two ends of the journey, not to mention the probability that the ADC wrote down the wrong message, or doesn't find the recipient, or does find a cannonball. However you work this, the reality is that it would not be instantaneous, yet the delay is not explicitly built into Command Radius rules. That's OK - this is just a device to introduce imperfection into the control exercised by the C-in-C, and it has a lot of merit as a practical solution, but please don't get snooty about realism.

Or we might have Command Chits, or CPs or whatever you choose to call them. Depending on an individual general's supposed ability, plus maybe a couple of dice throws, that general will be able to spin a certain number of plates at the same time. OK - I can see that - I have used rules like this myself, and it works. Sometimes the Chits and the Command Radius co-exist in the same set of rules.

And then there's cards - I have used cards, there's something nice and Waddington-like about cards - you know you're in a proper game. I've used Piquet cards, and derivatives of Battle Cry cards and various others, including my own. It's comfortable to have a hand of cards you can develop secretly and play when the moment is right. However, I am not comfortable at all when the card restricts me to control of a formation on the left flank, or of a unit which is arbitrarily classified as "Red" (as in Grognards & Grenadiers) - this is so obviously an artificial, randomly-generated hassle that it can be mostly just frustrating.

Because I do a lot of solo gaming, cards and chits do not work so well for me, and look at the mess they make of the battlefield! So I became very interested in the dice-driven Command system in Fast Play Grande Armee, it is simple in operation, and does not require any special kit or record keeping, though it does require each commander to be allocated a stash of Command Dice each bound, which he may use in various ways, from assisting his subordinates to comply with his wishes to generating re-rolls for poor artillery fire. I implemented a cut-down version of this in my own game, and it worked really well. The bad news, of course, was that it added a huge time and effort overhead to the game.

Not outfaced, I modified it so that only troops and officers within a certain distance of the enemy needed Command actions. It still took a while, but it was better. The fiddly overhead came down but – guess what? That’s right – I was back to the out-of-control cavalry effect – the occasions on which a commander was unable to correct a non-standard Command result, where it actually affected the game, were so few that it really wasn’t worth the constant effort of checking. By default, the Command phase would be dropped from the game – I would just stop doing the testing when fatigue set in.

All this negativity is not leading up to the conclusion that Command rules are a bad idea – I think they are an excellent idea, but they can also get your battles bogged down worse than anything in the entire history of wargaming. I have developed a minimalist set of Command rules, which I’ll explain in a future posting, at the time when I start adding a Command section to the draft.


  1. Several subjects which have been on my mind of late: rules that add effort and bother for little result and command control. C&C rules seem to focus on the higher commander though and the rare disobedience examples, the discussion these days rarely seems to touch much on the great pressure on officers to obey orders regardless of consequences or (perversely) the ability of commander on the spot to take make limited reactions to threats not included in his orders. The Grant rules did both by using the out-moded idea of issuing orders and role playing the result while Shako builds in both aspects fairly well. I think activation rolls can manage it if they aren't taken to extremes.

    But you touch on another matter which has so far been very resistant to my efforts to bring it to heel.

    As you point out most troops spent most of a day of battle standing about doing nothing yet most wargame figures spend most of a game moving or fighting. Now admittedly it would be boring in a multi-player game to have a command which does nothing all day but that is another aspect.

    If we take a battle like Waterloo, most of the troops were within a half hour's march of the enemy yet obviously they were not all launched in motion at the same time and it wasn't because they failed a command activation roll. Too many troops get in the way and add nothing and reserves are good. In small battles it works out ok and in big battles with brigades or even divisions being a single stand it can be abstracted out ok as in Volley & Bayonet but in between, how to convince gamers to leave troops back, knowing that they can commit them later and actually get them to where they need to be and engaged before the end of the game and include some tactical flavour without having troops fly across the table with no chance at all for the other side to react. It needs the ability to cross the table in fraction of the expected number of game moves and fairly quick combat resolution as well as some sort of command limitations. The closest I came was allowing very long moves with complex reaction rules which resulted in a very confusing game. Perhaps extensive training of players might have helped....
    In the mean time I focus on small wars.

    Good stuff and more grist for the though mill.

  2. I have a nice vision of Napoleon committing his reserve cavalry too early, because Murat's wife is coming to collect him at 11pm and they'll both be upset if he hasn't had anything to do!

    Deploying reserves as blinds, or even as off-table blinds, is maybe one way of reminding the commander that they are not to be just mixed in with his advance guard.

    One of the few real advantages of solo gaming is that you can do all sorts of unappealing things without upsetting anyone.


  3. Ross - supplementary response to the bit in your comment about multi-player games, just because I remembered something.

    Years ago I ran and umpired a series of Napoleonic campaigns. On one occasion, there was a contact on the map, I gave estimates of strengths to the commanders, and they agreed to fight. They turned up for the usual evening of battle plus supper, but the French commander took one look at the battlefield and announced that he was going to withdraw from the field and fall back on his Winter quarters.

    All kinds of shock greeted this, although it was a perfectly reasonable action to take, given the circumstances. We then decided that campaign battles had a lot of advantages from the point of view of commonsense and continuity, but that making them the subject of a social evening might occasionally cause problems.

    As I recall, that particular campaign ended with that withdrawal, and one of the generals declined to take part in the next one. I think the incident itself was not significant - amusing in retrospect, though. What is probably more significant is the fact that none of us had ever realised that it might happen!


  4. A joy to read your blog Tony, very well written and a nice touch of humour. Thanks.


  5. Thanks very much, Lee.

    I find the blog very useful indeed - apart from insights I get from other people, it forces me to sort out a jumble of ideas (a head full of mince) into something coherent enough to write down. We could debate the level of coherence, maybe, but you know what I mean!