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

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rules - the Diablo System and other things

Inevitably, Martin P wanted to know why I was looking at D4’s in yesterday’s post. Yes, quite – this does lead on to the topic of why Martin needs to know – or was he simply checking that I myself had some idea what I was doing?

In consequence, this post is probably going to be all over the place. I have a natural inclination to get involved in ideas when they stem, simultaneously, from different sources – some might regard this as a lack of focus, I just find that the cross-fertilization of ideas from different directions is productive – often illuminating (and sometimes just plain silly, of course).

The main driver for this has been my interest in producing an occasional alternative for Commands & Colors (for variety and to keep me entertained, and because certain kinds of tabletop action are not ideally suited to straight C&C), though this may simply be a search for some optional alternatives to some parts of C&C. The Command Cards are one area – there is nothing at all wrong with them, but solo play, for example, requires some crafty workarounds (and removal of some of the cards – First Strike, Out of Supply don’t work solo, and Counter Attack isn’t much of a surprise in a solo game, either). Also, the Command Cards do not work if the game is played in any other manner  apart from straight-across-the-table. So an alternative activation/command system is always a useful option to have in the bag – there was a pretty good discussion on this in a post in February (here), and that is one of the kick-off points for this post.

Another possible add-on I am interested in is the introduction of some element of tactical manoeuvre – facing and unit formation – yes, I realise that the lack of this (apart from squares) in C&CN is deliberate and sensible – such things are not the business of an army commander – but for a smallish action it would still be fun to carry out a bit of column-into-line, not to mention the threat of cavalry explicitly getting around your flank (rather than such a possibility being abstracted in the range of available combat outcomes on the dice).

Before I became a C&CN disciple, I mostly used a ruleset of my own, which in its later forms I called Elan, a name which I thought had a pleasing whiff of informed elegance until John Ramsay asked me why I had named it after a sports car. Elan used a hex-grid table, and it was computer-managed (my own software), but it also allowed a measure of wheeling and reforming units – even limbering of artillery and tinkering with skirmishers. Such fripperies are redundant in the C&CN world, of course, but the idea seems quite nostalgic from time to time. Elan is currently in a frozen state – I got disenchanted with having a netbook computer next to the battlefield (I think that mostly I became disenchanted with the optical challenge of spending so much time peering at the damn screen, then trying to remember where that particular unit was on the table), so I spent a month or two removing the computer from the game, and made it into a nice, traditional, dice and paper game, but in this form it was among the more fiddly games of history. It is probably self-evident that constant weather checks and the management of concealed units are child’s play on a computer, but a dreadful chore without one.

Anyway, for various reasons Elan is at present a non-starter as a playable game – more a pool of useful mechanisms and things-I-used-to-do – but I do have a fond recollection of a few aspects of how the game used to play. Facing and formation are two major elements of this.

Another feed for the current spate of pondering was my preliminary reading of Blücher – this game uses “Momentum Dice” to limit the number of actions you may take in a turn – your opponent rolls the MO Dice, and keeps them hidden – he knows how many activations you have available in your turn, but he won’t tell you until you reach that number. Thus you have a limit, but don’t know what it is – which makes it necessary to prioritise very carefully – make sure you do the important things first – this “unknown limit” idea is attractive, but it doesn’t work in this form for a solo player (obviously), and it has one distinctive effect – if you prioritise carefully, and then are stopped at some point from carrying out any more activations, there are certain kinds of actions which become rarities – when I have done this sort of thing, I found that orders for artillery and for the movement of commanders tended to get lost, because the main priorities were the movement of big formations, and the guns and generals were down the queue a bit. Point noted – I shall come back to this, if I remember.

The simplest alternative to an opponent-generated unknown limit is simply to roll a dice and that is the number of activations allowed. This is dead simple, and an obvious way to do it, and that is what I may well come back to – I’ve done this in the past. The downside is in knowing up front how much scope you have – I find the unknown limit idea attractive.

Yet another feed was some excellent work Jay (Old Trousers) has done on his blog in refining and documenting Neil Thomas’s Napoleonic Wargaming rules for use on a hex grid. I had been thinking along these lines myself for a while, but (of course) didn’t get around to setting it out properly. For a while I thought of just trying Jay’s/Neil’s rules as they stand – apart from my requirement to use larger armies and a bigger table. Then I thought that the manoeuvre rules looked very much like what Elan used to do, and then I realised how much I would miss the convenience of the C&CN combat dice, with their built-in morale system, and I decided that what I would do in the short term, at least, is to try the manoeuvre and movement rules from Jay’s game with the combat system from C&CN, and add in my thoughts on an unknown-limit activation system, which is what I shall come to next.

El Diablo. I mentioned this in the February post I linked to earlier, though I didn’t mention the Diablo name. The terminology is my own, and requires a quick, time-wasting yarn from yesteryear – no-one expected that, surely.

In my first year at university I stayed in a large lodging house which was like the United Nations – about two dozen students from many countries. Three of the guys used to get together late in the evening and spend an hour playing card and dice games for money – small stakes. I couldn’t afford to get involved, but I used to enjoy watching. The guys (not that it matters) were Skip, from Chicago, Bjorn, an Icelander, and Engel, from Rotterdam, who was rather older, having been seconded by his employer to do a course in marine engineering at Heriot Watt.

One of the games they played was called El Diablo – I don’t really remember the full details, but it was a sort of relative of Crap Dice – the game itself was negligible, the point was the betting – the players would bet on how far they could progress, and watchers could also make side bets. The game used a normal six-sided die – this system is what I discussed in the February post as a means of producing an unknown limit for activation.

This is not a picture of Martin
1D6 version of Diablo: Each turn scores a minimum of 1; to score 2, you need to roll 2+ on the die; to score 3, having successfully got to 2, you then need to roll 3+, and so on. You stop when you fail, and your score is the last one which succeeded – thus scores are in the range of 1 to 6; 1 is the minimum, and it is very rare to get to 6. I can’t remember how the betting worked, and it is irrelevant anyway.

I tried using what I have decided to call Diablo(6) as an activation system in an ECW game. You get to activate 1 unit for free; you need to throw 2 or better to activate a second, and so on. You stop when you fail, but you have already selected the units for activation when you get to that point. It was simple to use, did not slow the game down and worked OK, except…

Well, except that it gave miserable results – the number of activations in practice was more stingy than a simple roll of 1D6 would have been.

The average score of 1D6, of course, is 3.5

The average result of Diablo(6) is the sum of p(j).j for j = 1 to 6, which works out at a niggardly 2.775

Now neither of these numbers compares badly with the average number of “orders” you would expect to be allowed to give as a result of a C&CN Command Card – especially if I add in the facility to activate an entire brigade with a single order – but the fact remains that the artillery and the generals were getting starved of action.

That’s getting close to as far as I’ve got – my current thinking is that there should be two quick activation sessions per turn – a distinct artillery session of Diablo(4) (using a D4), and the activations from this may only be used for artillery. Then the main activation uses Diablo(8), with a full D8 – these activations may be used for anything, including artillery.

It is tempting to consider using different kinds of dice, for different commander abilities, or for handicapping; I also considered whether the dice should be chosen to match the number of units fielded – in this I agree with Michael’s comment last time, that there is a limit to what one general can do, however big the army, so maybe D4 and D8 will work across the board (so to speak).

The train, as you will observe, has not yet stopped moving, but I have at least answered Martin’s question about D4’s. I may set out some stuff about introducing an element of tactical manoeuvre, once my thoughts start to look printable - maybe some photos would be good. Hmmm.



  1. Have you read 'To The Strongest!'? The activation system there is based on playing cards - two packs with the court cards removed. Within a command you nominate a unit to do something and turn a card. Anything but an ace and you can do it. You can then move on to a different unit (same deal - anything but an ace) or you can try to reactivate the same unit by turning a higher card than previously. You always have the option to return to a unit. First fail means that command's turn is over. There are adjustments for the effect of 'difficult' moves, commanders etc.

  2. To do the "how many activations you have available in your turn, but he won’t tell you until you reach that number" in solo play, I would take a deck of cards equal to the MO dice, make them all blank except one marked X or something equally dramatic.... turn them over face down and shuffle them well - turn over a card for each action until you get to the X... repeat for the other side... etc.

  3. Having burned out an alarming quantity of scarce greycells on questions of activation and command control, questions that don't seem to have bothered any of the early writers, esp those who had sufflled real troops, I have momentarily abandoned the fight in favour of a very simple, elegant, and effective approach which I won't trouble you with.

    However, when I do consider activation systems from the POV of the over all general, I can't see him being involved very often in ordering individual units about, ordering subordinates seems more likely but in that case, why would a brigade order not include the brigadier and any attached or supporting artillery?

    A variation has just occurred to me as I type. A d(x) for the general to see how many orders he can issue to brigadiers and independent units followed by any ordered brigadier then rolling a d(x) to see how many of his units he csn get going. x possibly being relative to the number of subordinate commanders and units. (They make d7 don't they?)

  4. Hi Tony, Thanks for the nice reference! El Diablo sounds interesting. A similar mechanism I keep coming back to, especially for solo games, is the Play Your Cards Right game. Shuffle a pack, deal one card and then bet if the next card will be higher or lower. When you lose your turn ends. Turns might also end if a joker is revealed or the Queen of Spades etc etc. This is simply brilliant for solo games but can also give a really interesting two or more player game. It is hard to do stats on this as personal judgement is required and it can be unpredictable. However, if it was good enough for Brucie (and it made a good game show) then its good enough for me!



    1. Gentlemen - thank you for your thoughts - all valued. The "To the Strongest" mechanism seems very like a straight 1-in-10 chance of failure, though if the activation can be re-done by drawing a higher card that suggests that the card must be kept on the table at least until activation is complete - I have a gentle dislike of the clutter associated with cards, which may seem odd for a C&CN man, but at least in C&CN you have a hand and a single card in play. I must try to get a read of To the Strongest, I think.

      Ross - virtual D7's were one of the many advantages of my computerised game. The reason that generals and batteries fall behind in a "brigade orders" game is because generals who need to be moved to take their place with a unit/brigade require an order just for themselves, and batteries tend to get left behind by their mates, so that they also require specific instructions.

      I agree that it is a bit bovine to insist that the C-in-C should personally command the firing of a cannon, and I try to avoid games like this, but true Old School insists on just that, so it must be beyond criticism!

  5. I was going to warn that 'To The Strongest!' - while containing interesting ideas and giving a fun game - weren't the most well structured or best edited set of rules. However, my precis was clearly even worse so I had better refrain. One does indeed leave the cards on the table next to each unit until a command has failed activation and yes it does detract from the aesthetics. My other observation would be that much of the fun referred to above comes from decision making (gambling?) on the activation system rather than the toy soldiers per se. That might not work as well solo.

    1. Thanks for this - interesting. My aversion to cards is also due to my inept handling of them - the sight of me shuffling cards is a regular source of hilarity - Klutzfest. One of the bad bits (for me) in Victory without Quarter was that the game depends heavily on a pack of cards, and the quality of the (frequent) shuffles influences how well the game goes. So the problem is not cards in themselves, it is bringing them into contact with me.

    2. It's funny that you should say that. We used the small packs of cards that come as gifts in Christmas crackers and naively assumed they were a standard size. In fact they just appear that way; they are sufficiently different in dimension to make shuffling a nightmare.

      James, being wargaming aristocracy, managed to blag a set of the laser cut counters that, I think, Warbases produce for the rules. These are much better because all one does is put them in a bag, shake it up and draw. They also are less offensive to the eye when stacked up on the table. On the other hand I found the values difficult to distinguish from my umpire's position at the end of the table.