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

Friday, 15 August 2014

Tweakle Tweakle Little Star (2) – The Free-for-All

Having established that there are scenarios and battlefield configurations which are perhaps not ideally suited to the Command Cards activation system in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, what else might fit the bill?

On the small number of occasions when necessity has obliged me to come up with something suitable (typically because the battle was the wrong size or shape for left/centre/right demarcation), I’ve successfully used a dice-based system, whereby the number of units which may be ordered is the total of nD6 (or, more usually, nD3), where n is given by an algorithm involving the current number of units and generals in each army, and might make some allowance for the historical abilities of the commanders involved. This system (and it has evolved a bit) is derived from assorted sources: Portable ™ wargames of various types and shapes, an OOP edition of Hearts of Tin, articles in Bicycle News and elsewhere, and even some stuff of my own. Personally, I prefer something simple, preferably linked to the structure of the army, which does not involve counting the distance between each leader and his units – not every turn, anyway. The ability to carry forward a small “float” for later use is nice, too. All good – the only potential weakness is that the algorithm has, thus far, been based on guesswork, the only check being that the resultant numbers of ordered units are not dissimilar to those in a straight game of CCN.

What I have actually done, though, is less important than the fact that the world is full of alternative ways of activating an army, and probably a fair number of them would have been suitable. It’s mostly a question of effecting a smooth join at the edges.

I had a lengthy exchange with Prof De Vries about what else I could have done. He is invariably amusing, but he also has a refreshing tendency to produce crazy extrapolations, which sometimes are more useful than he intended. How would it be, he said, if we dropped activation completely, and fell back on what we might consider a streamlined Old School game, where you can move or fight with anything you like, yet still keep the neat, quick, simple moving and combat systems from CCN? As far as I know, Peter Gilder and Charles Grant Sr didn’t bother about limiting the number of units under your command on any given turn (apart from the ones who were stopped or routed by the copious morale tests, of course), so you would expect a deep-throated murmur of approval from the traditionalists. In truth, such a game sounds like it might be a blast, and I am very keen to try one. Being of an analytical (not to say pessimistic) bent, however, the Prof and I also came up with a few potential problems.

1. One of the reasons why CCN works so well is that the games move quickly – your turn usually doesn’t give you a great amount of scope for moving stuff about, but it will be your turn again very soon. In direct contrast, if I could get back all the accumulated time that I’ve spent over 40 years wargaming, watching people scratching themselves while they decide what they should do with their other 33 units this turn, I would have more than enough left over to build an Austrian army. I might even have enough to read all the way through the Empire rules. If we’re going to allow a free-for-all, then it will be necessary to impose some time limit on a turn – if your time runs out before you’ve fired then perhaps you will learn something for next turn.

2. If all units can be ordered every turn then there is no opportunity cost, there is no need to prioritise, or to choose the best use of a limited resource. In normal CCN, if you wish to order a unit to come out of square then that will be one less order that you could have used to do something else. With no limits, you can have your cake and eat it as well, every single turn. This would not have occurred to me 10 years ago, but it seems quite uncomfortable now.

3. The Prof also made the point (and it may be a very good one – this is not the bit of game design where I have a very strong intuitive feel for things) that if everyone can move and fight then the balance of the game may alter. Attacking will become easier, because you can just throw everyone in, and deploy the artillery nicely in support, but on the other hand everyone in range will be able to fight back. He saw a number of potential distortions which could arise, the chief of these being that it would be much easier to move units to gang up on an isolated enemy unit – especially on the end of a defensive line. One suggestion was that the traditional SPI/Avalon Hill Zone of Control idea should be applied – it should become necessary to engage every adjacent enemy unit, you can’t simply ignore some of them to concentrate on getting a local superiority over others. Also, since the normal CCN game is expected to involve action from only a few units each turn, the kill rates might need to be reduced a little if the game were to become a free-for-all in this way.

As ever, we have no convincing answers, but we have at least identified a number of questions. I am determined to try a no-activation-limits game of CCN (without cards), just to see what happens. Solo, I think…

In the next post I’ll talk a bit about another possible approach I discussed with the Prof, which probably will not work either, but is not without interest, I think. After that, if I’m still up and running, I’ll have a look at possible tweaks for Leaders in CCN, which might offer some more useful results.


  1. Command, control, and activation based upon readings from Bicycling News? You must not leave that one hanging in the air. Please explain!

    I have often thought about introducing ZoC into miniatures' games too and CCN or CCA might improve with ZoC introduction. Tactically, it would be a much more interesting game. But, the game works quite well "as is" and adding complexity might wreck the balance.

    On perhaps a related note, I combined the hex (or grid, if you like) based system of CCA, CCN, Samurai Battles, etc. with Impetvs. The combination eliminated the need to measure distances, thus speeding play with the activation and combat mechanisms of Impetvs. For me, it worked. I should return to those experiments.

    1. Ah yes - "Bicycle News" is a private joke, I regret to admit - a code name for a very well-known and respected wargames blog. I am not at liberty to give more information, though you may, of course, work on this independently...

  2. Fascinating. I am far too new to C&C Napoleonics to add anything, but I shall be filing this away for future reference. I would only add that as a newcomer I obviously got some of the rules wrong on my first couple of runs through and was absolutely convinced that the leadership rules must be among them because the commanders didn't seem to be doing anything.

    1. C&CN has some awkward features - it's not a complicated game, on the face of it, but there's a lot to remember. When I first started playing it, I said to myself, "Right - scan the rules, learn the main system, identify tricky exceptions etc which might come up, and look at those in detail as and when they arise", which is pretty much how I would approach any new game. Ha! - you can bet that stuff like cavalry breakthrough and bonus melees, and retire and reform and a few others, will crop up in your first game - so keep the rule book handy. There were other rules which I found so unmemorable that it took me a while to get them in my head; combined arms attack involving artillery support, for example - at first I couldn't see any point in this - there seemed to be a lot of nippy choreography for little benefit - until i eventually realised that doing a melee in this way allows the artillery to score hits on a crossed sabres symbol, which they don't get if they fire separately (which means, I think, that it is not worth providing this kind of artillery support for a melee attack by rifles or militia, who don't count crossed sabres anyway - but I'd have to get the rules out and check). There are still situations which i am going to have to check if they arise: squares are not straightforward; cavalry attacking a square on top of a hill lose the only die they were allowed to have, i think - what if they are heavy cavalry? - I think they still lose it - what if there is a cavalry charge card, or a cold steal [sic] card? - not sure - I'd still have to check. Leader retreats is another dodgy area for me - as I recall, a leader may force a retreat through an enemy unit (though I'd have to look up how he does it) - interestingly, he may not force a retreat through a friendly unit which already has a Leader attached, which seems so odd that I should check that again as well.

      I just have to keep the rules handy - I keep promising that I will make a special effort to polish up my learning of the fiddly bits, but there's always more, and also having contact with a tweaked ECW version doesn't help sometimes!

  3. HG Wells was a big fan of timed moves which by itself is a point in its favour. He felt the pressure led to hasty decisions, faulty evaluations of situations and a tendancy to forget parts of the field, all good and realistic things.

    The only times I have resorted to a clock have been because of certain players habitually taking unreasonable amounts of time.

    One of the reasons I have moved away from dice test by unit to confirm activation as a way to limit the everything at once effect is that it is chance vs choice as opposed to dice or cards to give numbers of units which are choice based on cards with the option to hold a hand or collect unused ones allowing even more room for players to plan in the face of uncertsinty.

    Given the amount of time and effort armies spent lining up Brigades and Divisions, I really like the aspect of DBA which allowed a properly formed army to move on even a roll of 1, as long as they all did the same thing. A more flexible formation had more options but less chance of doing them all while a fragmented/disorderec unit is pretty much screwed unless it stops to reform despite their being specific rules on the subject, it just naturally flows. Brilliant.

    1. One thing that bothers me a bit about time limits and potential associated panic is the risk of collateral damage - if i think of broken bayonets I have to go and lie down for a while to recover.

      The ability to move a contiguous group, albeit one that all belongs to the same brigade or is within reach of its commander, is an attractive tweak - I think you mentioned before that something like this exists in CCA?

  4. Oops, I also wanted to say that we use a very simply zoc. When a unit enters a hex adjacent to an enemy it must stop. If it begins adjacent it msy move as normal but again must stop when it enters a hex adjacent to an enemy. We tried splitting dice or engaging as many enemy as possible. but the rule became more complex than it was worth. Doesn't do alot but prevents cavalry from riding past one unit to hit another and slows down penetration of gaps allowing enemy the possibility to respond, if they have the right cards..

    1. Forcing a unit to stop when it gets next to an enemy seems sensible - if I employ a tweak which makes movement generally less restrictive I think it might be a logical thing to do, but in the standard CCN game it is so difficult to co-ordinate an attack anyway that it might be a limitation too far. Can the cavalry ride past a unit in a village? The thing that keeps impressing me is that none of this is simple - CCN is not a complex game, but any changes require far more thought and more subclauses than I would have expected. That's why I have mostly specialised in spoiling other people's games rather than developing my own...

    2. Agreed, small changes can have big impacts, not all fireseen.

      But to stick with that 1 example, yes the cavalry can ride past if it doesn't get too close or if accepts tge risk of being shot at by tge garrison and takes 2 turns. The flip side is that a defended village or chateau can become a major obstacle not easily ignored. Choices!


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