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

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Activation Systems - Again

Over the last few days, an exchange of emails with Prof De Vries has touched on the well-worn topic of Command and Activation in miniatures games. As usual, I had been banging on about some aspect of this at rather tedious length, when De Vries came back to me and said “you obviously didn’t think that two years ago”. Hey, what? - but I’ve always thought that.

So the Prof kindly directed me back to a post I put up here in October 2010, and I re-read it, and I have to say that I do appear to have changed my mind. It’s not that I have done a full volte-face, you understand, more that I have changed my ideas on the priorities.

During these two years, I have been introduced to two rulesets which I like very much, and which have re-coloured my views more than a little. These are Richard Borg’s Command & Colors (published as a whole suite of boxed boardgames by GMT, but also used with miniatures) and Victory without Quarter, for the ECW, developed by Clarence Harrison. One feature of both these games is that the Activation system is heavily restrictive. In Command & Colors (C&C), each player is dealt a hand of cards at the start, and on each turn he plays a single card, as a result of which he may “order” a number of units which is normally in the range 1-4 – occasionally more. In VwQ, each turn the game is driven by drawing the top card from a shared pack. The pack contains a small number of global orders – “Reload” being an example – but otherwise consists of one card for each unit, one for each commander or brigadier (which can activate any of his subordinate units which are within a certain distance), and a card which activates all artillery for both sides. The effect is even more haphazard than C&C, but it shares the “small moves” approach. The games both consists of short, focused turns, with a fast cycle time. In C&C there is strict alternation of sides (so that you may only do a small number of things, but it will be your turn again in just a minute or so), and the strategy comes from husbanding your hand, collecting useful cards and keeping them for use at the optimum moment. This is also sometimes described as “struggling to make the best of a bad deal”, which is maybe not a bad analogy for generalship anyway. The VwQ game is much more random – the cards may come up in any order at all, yet the game still seems to hang together logically.

Cards get a mixed press. I have become a big fan of late, despite early prejudices against their artificiality, and I think this is entirely down to the fact that the playability and entertainment value of these particular games is very much enhanced by their being card-driven. One thing neither game will allow you to do is march your entire army up and down the table every move. From my point of view this is a big advantage. I have wasted a lot of time over the years watching aimless countermarching. If I had some of that time back, I could use it to paint some of the backlog of figures, or to make some inroads on the “still to be read” shelf in the big bookcase! There was a day when the fact that a medium-sized miniatures battle took a huge amount of time to complete (if it was ever completed...) was somehow taken as a point of pride – a testament to the scholarly complexity and awesome realism of the noble wargame. It is also the reason why for some years I had serious doubts about whether the enjoyment gained from the games was worth the exhausting process of playing them. The thing that took up so much time, mostly (apart from arguments), was the freedom of the generals to move everything they had every turn. The proportion of the orders given that generated an interesting action was miniscule, players became fatigued and frequently forgot where they were up to.

I worried about this stuff for years – it is, after all, a First Degree Bummer when you are no longer convinced that you like your hobby very much, especially when you have committed so much time and money to it! The whole idea of Command rules seemed to be aimed to address this – to restrict this limitless ability of battlefield commanders to change everything in every single 5 minute turn. I became interested in a number of mechanisms – especially those from Mustafa’s Grande Armeé and its Fast-Play cousin. As I believe I have said before, for my taste these didn’t quite do the job – they introduced a little sanity and forced generals to prioritise, but the overhead introduced by the Command rules was too heavy in proportion to the benefit. Maybe I never gave them enough of a chance.

My approach at this time to Command and Activation was “introduce some inconveniences – you start off with the ability to order every single unit, but some will be too far from their commander, and  some of the subordinate commanders will have characteristics which get in the way, which will cut the scope down a bit”. The idea was good, but often it was too much work to carry out – the Universal Movement grunt had been partly replaced by the Command Tests grunt, but it was still a grunt. And it was a very particular grunt if the Command rules were a lot of work but only rarely affected the game.

I think I am getting close (at long last) to the point on which I have changed my mind. I have not changed my belief that Activation type rules are a good idea, but I have come to realise that they should be approached from the opposite end of the problem – i.e. start off with the assumption that no-one can do anything and then allow a small number of units to be activated to receive orders. It’s less work, the effort is expended on the parts of the battle where something is happening, and it produces a snappier game, with short turns, better focus and less waiting around. Yes, it is artificial, but no more so than the other approaches.

It works. It works easily and effectively, and I can approach games that work in this way in the safe knowledge that I am going to enjoy them. That is a pretty fair bonus.

I accept that a lot of people will disagree – maybe very strongly. If it wasn’t in Charge! then maybe it should be viewed with suspicion – and it has to admitted that there is a snag. C&C games are usually played around published scenarios in which the armies are ready deployed, all set to go. I very rarely use other people’s scenarios (scenarii?), published or not, and many of my battles are fought as part of a campaign. If the action requires an army, or a large part of an army, to march somewhere – on to the table, for example – the standard card-driven systems don’t handle it well. In reality, a simple march order would keep a whole Division marching until they were stopped – simulating this by shifting penny packets of 2 or 3 of the units in the right direction when (and if) suitable cards come up is unsatisfactory. The card systems require extra rules in this type of action to allow the units to march about the place – something, as you will have noted, which the old free-for-all rules would have coped with, with no difficulty at all!

So – card systems such as C&C work excellently for set-pieces, but we need something extra to cope with mass marching. Anubis Studio’s White Mountain 30 Years War rules are heavily based on the C&C Ancients game, but they also allow a Command Card to be played as a Standing Order for a particular unit (or group of units), and it will remain in force until it is cancelled. I need to read that up again, but maybe something along those lines is what I’m after.

Whatever – I believe I have maybe changed my mind, after all. Some expression about old dogs and new tricks comes to mind.


  1. I still haven't solved the dilemma of translating the real reasons why all units don't move all the time and in precisely the right way, into a workable game mechanism. I try hard not to think about how much better simultaneous moves with Grant style written orders that last until news ones are issued do it compared to other systems because there are various good reasons the system fell out of favour.

    My best thought in response is " Couldn't you add a card to the deck that allows a General to move all units in Zone X a double move but no units may battle" ?

    or do like the Winter War expansion of Memoir and add footnotes to the usual command cards (is that the right turns for things like "Probe"?) that allow 1 or 2 units to move only as well as the units being order

    Yes there would be production value issues with homemade cards so perhaps a look up chart that says "This card also allows a player to move X number of units but not battle with them."

  2. Hi MSFoy,
    I concur, some mechanism is needed to allow reinforcements to move up while units are battling on the front lines. I've been playing Battle Cry and Memoir 44 for many years; if you don't activate your front-line units they get shot to pieces with no reply; if you do, your reinforcements won't arrive in time.
    Featherstone's system of move side A, move side B, then roll to see who fires first (which system I like) doesn't work here because too many units would be firing too frequently -- the front line would disappear quickly.
    I have been considering allowing 1 activation point to activate a group of 2 or 3 adjacent units for firing, or for moving, but not some of each. Then a fire group could defend itself while a reinforcement group marched up.
    Another possibility is to allow any surviving unretreated attacked unit to return fire at one attacking unit immediately for free, thus potentially freeing up those activation points for the reserves.
    It is also extremely annoying when you barely get any cards for the critical flank the entire game; I guess that simulates a severe command failure.
    They are still fun games and I keep going back to them -- fast, easy, lots of carnage.

  3. Interesting post. I've recently been playing Memoir'44 (another of Mr Borgs creations) which is basically the WWII version of C&C and I must admit that I fount the use of cards really does give that frustration factor that any CinC must face during battle. Any rule system that allows a player absolute command over every unit in his force is (A)unrealistic and (B) quite boring to play. Imagine playing a game of chess in this manner....'Just sit there while I position every one of my pieces to my advantage would you good fellow?'
    The C&C card system is much more realistic in my view as it (sometimes frustratingly!) restricts a player to carry out his 'grand plan' to perfection.... Such is the FOW...
    Thanks for posting,


  4. Fantastic post Tony, I fell asleep thinking about it last night! I have no doubt whatsoever that the old game system where a player moves everything then goes through the laborious process of tracking back unit by unit going through firing, then melee then reaction tests then routs then rallys etc led to my almost giving up this hobby completely. How many times do players overlook certain things, or become confused about who did what and when? I could never go back to such rules again, thats for sure. When the original Fire & Fury set came along back in (?)they caught on like wildfire, because finally it offered a game that could be played at a fast pace, was fun, AND offered a reasonable simulation of ACW battle at Corps level. Not perfect of course, the dice rolls could produce extremes of results, but they were just so damn playable. I loved that activation system, still do. Like C&C the scenarios offered real challenges and a clear result by setting victory conditions. IN my humble opinion, in spite of its obvious shortcomings, F&F remains a very good set of rules that broke new ground. I'd play them again any time.

    If I have one issue with C&C Napoleonic its that the bigger the game in terms of unit numbers the more frustrating it can become when only moving a single or two units. Not a major problem, but when I have a brigade or division consisting of say 4 or 5 units I like to be able to think an order would activate the entire group and not just part of it. Maybe its just me and I'm not thinking in terms of my bases representing simply a mass of troops occupying a certain area of ground, maybe I need to free myself mentally of such higher groupings? But the card driven activation overall for me is superb, like my beloved F&F, just so playable. I'd never go back.

  5. Gentlemen all - thanks very much for your comments - good food for further thought - rather than squeeze too much into an unstructured comment, I'll add a further post on this subject once I've done some more reading and head scratching.

    In the meantime - Lee - for bigger C&CN battles, an option which I've tried which seems to work is as follows:

    The Command Cards divide into Section Cards and Tactic Cards - this is a simpler arrangement than in C&CA, for example, which have 4 separate categories of cards. The Section Cards in C&CN say stuff like "order n units on the Right Flank" or something - the Tactic Cards are a bit more exotic than that, applying to categories of troops (rather than locations) and so on. My rule tweak for big games is thus - on your turn you can play ONE Tactic Card or UP TO TWO Section cards - you may not play one of each. This works OK - speeds things up quite a bit, and it means that the game isn't changed much.

    On the general subject of C&CN cards, there are two FORCED MARCH cards, which allow you to get a move on with a bigger block of troops, but it's just infantry, and it's probably not enough for the strategic marches I was referring to. I am thinking of adding some extra "marching cards" to the Command Cards in the home-brewed C&C ECW variant. I may well say all this again in the next post...


  6. Late to the party as usual -

    We've handled this in a couple of ways.

    1. Players draw normal hand of five cards or so and play those cards to move troops onto the field. The cards are not replaced. Once all the cards are gone, players draw a new hand and start the game as normal. Undeployed units are assigned to a section and may be move on later in the battle.

    2. This has only been used in Second World War games. Units move double on roads - units on road may travel in "column". A column token adds one hex of movement and you can have up your movement in tokens. Units in column may not shoot. An enemy unit adds one die per token when attacking.

    3. The Breakthrough method. Each card is marked with a number of "On the move" orders. An OTM order can be used to move, but not battle with, a unit anywhere on the board. Low numbered cards have the most orders. Scout comes with four for example.