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

Thursday, 5 February 2015

ECW Campaign - Activation Again - Crude but OK

In my recent Battle of High Cark (previous post), I had another example of a medium-sized action which did not lay out nicely in the official play-across-the-table, left-centre-right sector format which best suits Commands & Colors. In fact, the battle did sort itself into across-the-table, but it might not have done.

Since it was also a solo game, there were a couple of reasons why I decided for this occasion to swerve my customised ECW set of C&C Command Cards for activation. I’ve done this on occasions in the past, usually replacing the cards with a semi-improvised dice system to fit the scenario. These systems have all worked tolerably well – my personal view on each of them is based on very short, Stone Age-man criteria.

(1) Does it restrict the number of activated units to about the right level (i.e. something comparable with what the C&C cards would give)?

(2) Is the extra overhead of labour and mental arithmetic acceptable, in view of the advantages offered (i.e. is it a pain in the butt)?

(3) Does it make sense (i.e. can it be explained in sensible, real-world terms, or is it just an obviously artificial game mechanism to limit each move)?

Dice manufacture in the Stone Age - lack of a numbering system was a major problem
Point (1) is simply that C&C provides the player with a hand of cards (usually the cards he doesn’t want), of which he may play one – typically, the sector cards allow activation of between 1 and 4 units, though some allow activation of a number of units equal to the number of cards in the player's hand. This gives an approximate idea of how much activation is appropriate for tested use with C&C’s movement and combat rules, and with the required (short) duration of each turn, to keep things ticking along.

Point (2) is obviously also about keeping the game moving, and a personal aversion I have to command radii (which, of course, are loved and embraced by a great many players whose views and opinions I respect). I have had unhappy flirtations with caches of Command Chips and similar – as soon as they become a nuisance, the Activation rules are abandoned, and I use tasteful application of Point (3) to justify this.

My latest improvisation came after reading some of Neil Thomas’ rules. It does not appear in any of Neil’s books as far as I know, but I find Mr Thomas invigorating for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he is not scared of doing something unorthodox in the interests of simplifying and speeding up the game – I frequently disagree with individual manifestations of this, but at heart he is definitely my kind of wargamer. I have a slight difficulty with the fact that he often has several different approaches for the same period, and I am never sure just how tested and proven these rules are, but once you challenge accepted thinking the gloves are off, and all sorts of new and sacrilegious ideas spring to mind.

All right, Foy – enough preamble, already – what did you do for the ECW battle?

Well, first off I applied my recently-developed “brigade order” rule. An “order” (activation counter) may be placed against a single unit, or against a Leader/General figure – and in my ECW games the Leaders go down to brigade level. Thus far it looks rather like C&C. The ordered Unit or Leader may then move, fight, whatever. However, if the order is given to a Leader, and if he is attached to a combat unit under his own command, then a contiguous group of units from this same brigade may be activated by this single order. Thus my armies have broken out in rashes of coloured counters, to identify the various brigades, and the need to keep them together to take advantage of this feature (an effect I term “daisychaining” when explaining it to bemused visitors) forces the army commander to keep his army organised. If a unit gets separated from its brigade, it requires a separate order – perhaps it will be moved back into contact with the brigade. In broken ground, or if a unit in the middle of the line breaks, or if (heaven forfend) the brigadier stops a bullet, the additional hassle of keeping that brigade under control is considerable.

A more senior Leader may take command of a brigade (only one at a time) if the brigadier is lost. All Leaders attached to units are, of course, at risk if the unit takes losses.

OK – that’s not really all that new – I’ve mentioned this before, and bits of it are sort of derived from CCA. The new bit was the Activation rule. The “phasing” player (don’t you hate that?) is about to take his turn, and he arms himself with a handful of my patent blue ACTIVE counters and a D6.

He is only going to get to place a limited number of Activation counters, so he had better prioritise, and he had better be selective. He gets the first one for nothing – place a counter against any unit or leader he wishes.

It gets harder as he goes along. For his second order/counter, he must throw a 2 or better on the D6. If he gets 2+, he places a second counter, and then he must get 3+ to place a third. And so on – he may stop whenever he wishes, and if he doesn’t make the next number (or successfully places a 6th counter) then he must stop. Yes it is crude – I am proud of how crude it is – but it works, on average it gives something like the number of Activation orders you might expect from C&C, but you don’t know how many until you find out the hard way. Ideal for a solo player - I found it easy, convenient and still with a good few stings in the tail. On four, possibly five occasions in the Battle of High Cark I decided to place an order against one of the C-in-Cs, to move him nearer to where he was needed (just in case). As soon as the C-in-C was identified, without fail, the D6 rolled a “1” and the C-in-C remained where he was. It became a bit of a joke – a sad, solo joke, but there you go.

For a bigger battle, I guess I might use a D8, or a D10, but the D6 might do for even very big actions if the brigade orders feature were available. Anyway, there’s the outline. I liked it the other day – it passed all my Stone Age tests. You can reject it out of hand, or improve on it, or try it out, or tell me that it actually appeared in an SPI game in 1978, but do – at least – think about it. Out of the mouths of fools and single-cell organisms cometh wisdom – when you are contemplating the unthinkably crude, you may come up with a few new wacky ideas of your own.

And, if you haven’t already, have a look at Neil Thomas – I read and shrugged at his Napoleonic book, and did pretty much the same with his One-Hour wargames book, but – by Gum – my mind was racing afterwards. Homeopathy for wargamers?    


  1. I've used a similar mechanism for across the table battles. Any leader may activate himself or an attached or adjacent unit. They also receive d3 activations to spend where they wish. It means you lose the flavour of the different kinds of cards - but if it works, it works.

    NTs book on 19th century wargaming (ie post Napoleonic) is usually heavily discounted on book depository. It is well worth a look even just as a primer on the period.

    1. Thank you Herr Kinchmeister - that seems useful - a similar approach, though it means you start from a position of knowing how many activations you have available when you're choosing your priority units.

      NT's 19th C book - I bought that for Kindle last year - I started it, and mean to get back to it after I've finished Peter H Wilson's "30 Years War" (which may take me 30 years).

  2. Interesting thoughts on advancing CC to ft your ECW game. Your suggestions sound quite reasonable and easy to administer. For brigade activation, why must the leader be attached to one of his subordinate units? In CC, several of the cards are for activating a leader and x number of adjacent/contiguous units. Daisychaining. Have not heard that term in many years. Maybe not since the mid 80's when I "daisychained" hard drives on my C64!

    As for your chit activation, I recall Days of Battle (or some other medieval ruleset) doing something similar. The difference was sequential activations with decreased probability of success was for an individual unit or command. A unit or command could be pushed harder and farther with diminishing chance of continuing with each success. Not unlike your method.

    I agree with Conrad. NT's 19th Century Wargaming is an excellent book and one of my favorites. I still have yet to play a game with the rules, however.

    1. Hi Jonathan - having the leader attached to one of the units serves only two purposes

      (1) means that he is at risk with the brigade, as a measure of his commitment, if you like, to earn the brigade order right - he cannot be doing something else at the same time, and none of his brigade can get a second order in the same turn

      (2) more importantly for a more senior leader - if he is physically with a unit, it makes it clear which of his brigades he is acting with

  3. Always good to see another take on activation. I find it rather annoying at times that they tend to work well despite my being unable to relate them to any real world process.

    There is currently a ban on activation systems here but in case it should be lifted, just a couple of questions to make sure I have understood a few minor details of how you did things.
    1. Is there any penalty to failing a roll other than that ending the activation process? ie if you want to do 6 things is there any reason to only do 5 if you have made all the rolls to that point?
    2. Do you decide after each successful activation what you want to do next or do decided on all of the things you want to do and the order and then start rolling till you fail? (not sure what difference it would make since the plan stops once a unit fails and you can't start trying to implement a back up.

    Non procedurally, what advantage do you see over just rolling a die to see how many orders you can issue? I think I see 2: the odds of higher numbers is lower (ie getting 6 activations is much harder this way); and you don't know when you choose the first activation whether or not more will follow. Is that it?

    As an aside I could see a more professional army or more capable general being allowed a reroll or a +1 to the die roll or vice versa.


    1. Hi Ross

      You can stop when you want, only roll if you want another activation. All the first pass (rolling) does is identifies which units/brigades are activated - you don't need to decide what you are going to do with them until you see how many you get.

      I have a look at what the priorities are for each turn, and then prioritise very carefully - if you roll for the number of activations it doesn't make a lot of difference, except that dicing for each additional order means that you sort of have to treat each case as though it might be the last for this turn. One effect in my battle the other day was that (e.g.) movement of the C-in-C was a nice-to-have but there were things which were more pressing - if I'd rolled for the number of activations I think it is probably more likely that the C-in-Cs would have moved - maybe this is not true, but it feels like that.

      I originally planned to have a simple system of +/- adjustments - I may well revisit that, but didn't bother this time because the beautiful simplicity of the system as adopted meant I could hold everything in my hand and remember everything without a chart - if I started adjusting the dice roll I might get mixed up about which order number I had reached!

      The real strength of this was that the amount of preliminary work and stuff to remember each turn was minimal - roll the dice, place the ACTIVE counters and then decide what to do with the full set of orders - I followed the C&C philosophy - all movement first, then all the combats, and the combats have to declare all targets up front - thus if a unit's target has gone before they get to shoot at it, they can't switch to another target. This is just a choice, but makes sense when brigade moves are available, since there are plenty of orders going about - a complete brigade may fire on a single order, so limiting the scope for last minute switching is not such a hardship.

  4. Sounds an excellent and simple way of rationing actions in a turn - it doesn't seem too "gamey" since there's only so much one man and his staff can do. And it does it without creating a bureaucratic nightmare.

    It's also a good way of evening up the odds a bit if you have one small, nippy army versus a larger host.

    If you wanted something slightly less symmetrical, without having tables of factors to refer to or to remember, you could give one side a D6 and one a D8. This might replicate differences in organisation between the French and their opponents in early Nap battles.

    1. Different dice types is a good, simple variant - I like that. It does make sense to give some higher probability of activation for a more able commander (even for a more able brigadier within an army) - maybe the D8 could sneak in and out - it's a good idea, but I'd have to remember what I was doing! Hmmm. No - it is a good idea.

  5. This is really interesting. It might be worth just giving some thought to the system used by Worthington Games in their Hold the Line games. These are very similar to C&C but have no cards. The number of activations is determined by a command value plus a die roll. This can be affected by the leaders on the table.

    I only suggest this as it is a very simple and elegant method to use where a battle does not line up with the traditional cross the table C&C scenario.



    1. Thanks for this - again, the only very slight difference in approach is the prior knowledge of how many activations there will be available. I must have a squint at Hold the Line (in fact, I'm pretty sure I've got a download of some rules somewhere - must check the archives...).

      A perennial problem for me has always been that some restriction on activation has a big appeal for improving games, but the methods of achieving this have almost always been pretty tedious in use. People gripe to me about having card-driven games, but the card-free alternatives are usually unappealing once you've tried them. Hence my dedication to the brutally simple!

  6. I like the sounds of it, Tony. I am currently playing a Napoleonics game by email which allows for some roleplaying, but it is forcing me as a brigade commander to constantly think about what I can do in a finite period of time with a certain amount of resources (including one or more staff officers/couriers, my own ability to move around the battlefield, my desire to remain in one place or vantage point so I can see things and my aides can find me when they are returning from a task). It forces one to think about what we are actually representing with activation systems/command points, what have you.
    So a question - when you are rolling your dice to see if you can successfully daisy chain an order from one unit in a brigade to the next one further away, what is that die roll trying to simulate? Is it trying to simulate some element of friction, perhaps?

    1. Yes, it's just friction - which, of course, is a convenient smokescreen to conceal what is really a convenient game device! A point of detail - my "daisychains" are a single entity as far as activation goes - if the brigadier is attached, a successful activation will order the whole contiguous group in one go - only a detached unit requires a separate activation. When you dice to place a further activation marker, that is for a separate unit, or another brigadier. Because you don't know how many of these you are going to get, it's best to go for the biggest groups, the most important hot-spots, the most critical withdrawals/reinforcements first - all that. Justification of the need to test - i.e. of the possibility of failure/friction - is, I guess, just that the great man has a limited time to get orders out - some stuff will not be addressed, some orders will fail to arrive, or be misunderstood - things will go wrong.

      Which brings me to the further issue of what actions require in order. I've been thinking about that - if the firing of a cannon needs an order from the CinC, then firstly that may be a bit silly, and secondly it may get prioritised so low (especially with useless ECW cannons) that the cannons may not do much firing, since the dice may stop the activations before the general gets round to considering the artillery. Musket fire is not so silly, since the ranges are so piddling that anyone shooting must be very close to the enemy, and therefore might reasonably be expected to be under orders - going in or defending. Artillery is a different matter - I am starting to think it would be more sensible to allow artillery to fire without a specific order to do so, but limit their ammo. I've been looking at a practicable way to do this - my current idea is that moving or rotating a cannon requires an order, but thereafter it can fire at a valid target during its side's turn, but a distinctive (red) D6 is thrown with the firing dice - if the red D6 turns up a 1 that's the gun knackered after this shot - either the ammo is finished or the gun has had a dommage of some sort. It simply means that the artillery cannot fire all day without thought - it needs work, but - again - it's simple enough to be practical.

      The main point I have in my mind at the moment is that - if you limit the orders to the highest priorities - some things may never happen. Moving the staff is another example, as I found out!

      That's quite enough of that - sorry - didn't mean to labour the obvious, but joined up thinking is more of an effort than it once was!