Scenario Design: Assigning Activation Points

(Photo above) The British commanders of Operation Husky planning their operations in Malta, left to right: The Chief of Staff to General Montgomery, Major General F W de Guingand; Senior Air Staff Officer to Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, Air Commodore C B R Pelly; Air Officer Commanding Desert Air Force, Air Vice Marshal H Broadhurst; The Commander of the Eighth Army, General Montgomery and Naval Commanding Officer, Eastern Task Force, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.


On the Yahoo group for Great Battles of WWII, Vaggelis asked on 30 Dec 2016, “Could you please tell me what is the method I should follow so as to give the appropriate APs in each side?”

So I am going to give an “answer” that may be way too long for some but providing too little resolution for others! But my brainstorming may provoke your good reactions and draw out your knowledge. Note that nothing I say is “official” which might otherwise be assumed because my Yahoo Group moniker is GBoWWII. I just chose that because I really like this game.

The game’s author, Bruce McFarlane, does not specify any formula for would-be scenario designers. I have thought about this a lot because I feel the game is better than most but this “missing piece” of the puzzle is a big challenge. Constructing an Order of Battle and map are simple facts but Activation Points is more judgement like the choice of victory conditions. Unfortunately the author has not given feedback in the Yahoo group for years.

With the rulebook saying little about what Activation is, one must treat the subject like hieroglyphics and see how to piece together what Activation is made up of. In simplest game terms, it allows you to close with the enemy and so more likely to destroy or cause them to retreat. Activation does not literally increase your “to hit” chances in of itself. However it effectivly increases your offensive power by allowing you to contact and close combat the enemy, which is significant because greater impact comes through both the lessened range increasing odds of hitting and destroying plus the one-two punch of a suppression through close combat converting an already suppressed enemy to elimination. At the same time, activating a close movement to the enemy causes your unit to be more vulnerable until you decide consolidate a defense and voluntarily go to ground for the rest of the day.

Is Activation just telling the troops to, “Get up and follow me”? Not really because the game is not just a squad of ten guys hunkered down somewhere but nearly a thousand or ten thousand who have a multi-layered chain of command, many roles and duties that require planning, preparation and time-consuming gathering of resources.

Ones initial guesses are that Activation is a commitment of days or even weeks of time with documentation and orders plus the extra fuel, equipment and ammo required for offensive action. For example, even a small column (can cover up to 125 miles per day) carries 30 tons of diverse supplies (or 6600 gallons of fuel) with other columns double or quadruple this and such activity is not just arranged “on the fly”. Here’s what I think goes into Activation:

  1. Excellent, average or poor staffwork in planning the attack routes and logistics
  2. Coordination with newly-attached assets including tactical aircraft
  3. Patrolling and aerial reconniassance including the study of terrain
  4. Preparation of maps, assembly areas (FUP) and advance route marking
  5. Briefing the troops involved with their objectives, tactics and signals to be used
  6. Laying up supply dumps and preparing staffing for resupply
  7. Artillery plan of scheduled and counterbattery fire
  8. Contingency plans and reserves
  9. Infiltration groups prepared and sent out three to four days before the attack
  10. Surprise may reduce or eliminate defender activation

More data from the Handbook on German Military Forces, to demonstrate the scale of activity when a division is involved: Armored divisions averaged some 30 tons daily when inactive and about 700 tons a day when engaged in heavy fighting; infantry divisions required 80 tons a day when inactive and some 1,100 tons during a day of heavy fighting. Just for food, a whole train can provide: full rations with fodder: 180,000 human and 40,000 animal rations, amounting to 454 metric tons. These may be loaded into three parts, each containing 3 days’ supplies for 20,000 men and 4,000 animals.

But it’s worth the detective work to make a guideline because Activiation is a key part of the game. Having limits keeps all players from doing everything with every unit all the time. Which would be unrealistic and game-time consuming besides. As my ex-partner used to say in Judges Guild,

“Limitations make the game”.

Regarding play balance

A response McFarlane made to a question about a variant adding a new modifier was, “Some scenarios were un-balancable.” From this you can guess that he may have used Activation Points partly for play balance and not to attain historical accuracy. Some gamers prioritize historical accuracy and others play balance. But balance is not just about a simple equality of all conditions. Balance might be measured over the course of the game as follows.

Many of Avalon Hill’s games were based on the concept of Situational Imbalance. To AH that meant one side had the initiative and probably planning, supplies etc. to attack effectively but only early in the game. Then the initiative switched to the other side at some point along with reinforcements, supplies and presumably staffwork. The secret for the attacker was to win early early enough. Or if not hang on for a minor victory or draw. While some miniature scenarios may use this concept, too often you see both sides able to move all their forces freely from Turn 1. Maybe a small unit could react quickly but what about larger units with a chain of command and various logistical considerations?

To make an example, let’s move up to the Army level and how Patton’s Third Army had already made contingency plans so that they could pull out of the line and wheel 90 degrees to the north to reinforce the stretched US “Bulge” salient. He said that they could get there in two days with the offensive supplies they needed. At the time, his superiors were incredulous. I have not found out how many days of planning they done. This could be considered the ideal example and not the norm. No wonder, an unprepared defender in GBoWWII starts with little activation and must build it up over days.

A survey of existing scenarios’ Activation Points ratio

One can surmise what a formula could be by studying the various scenarios attacker/defender Activation “ratio”. Using that ratio could be a starting point of a simple answer. You are “backing into answer” rather using facts to arrive at the answer. My fast survey finds the following.

There are 26 scenarios that I know of between McFarlane’s 3 volumes and ad hoc scenarios that fans have assembled. 10 have a division or less and the other 16 tend to be much bigger. I did not even count up the giant airborne operation scenarios. But I gathered statistics for the other scenarios.

SummaryScenarioList_from_ActivationPointsInGBoWWII_ScenarioDesign
Note that I have converted the Activation Points from the total the scenario specifies to Division Equivalent (3 battlegroups) otherwise the varying force sizes would skew the figures. It should also be noted that many of the Drop Zone scenarios are smaller than the averages shown but that also drags down the non-airborne scenarios. Many defenders had zero APs on the first day so I showed the percentage when a defender did have Activation instead of averaging the zeros in.

Want more details? Spreadsheet, ActivationPointsInGBoWWII_ScenarioDesign, has a Scenario List tab that itemizes this chart of averages. It also has tabs relating to the Dupuy factors (below).

So what can one conclude? According to McFarlane (and the few ad hoc scenarios):

  1. An attacking division could really only activate fully twice in the game (10 points at dawn = 20 or rounded up from 19.30 points) then done after 2 days, or perhaps with 2 battlegroups on 2 days with a reserve battlegroup twice also… or if reserves not called forward, a 3rd day one could activated two battlegroups.
  2. OTOH, for a sustained 4-5 day attack, one needs to use a single battlegroup each day with the rest kept in reserve which could then be increased to two battlegroups if an an opportunity presents itself.
  3. If a defender had any points at all, it might be able to mount a battalion-sized attack but otherwise would probably build up points for later if that was provided for. A battlegroup counterattack may be possible in very few scenarios but then the attacker knows you’ve shot your wad.
  4. Unrealistically, knowing exactly what the enemy has for activation makes a huge difference in how the game was played. Seems better to have drawn activation and play your cards as you go.
  5. Smaller battles have much smaller attacking “division-equivalent” APs. This is probably due to skewing the averages because of the airborne scenarios where the attacker mostly has to take undefended areas and then hold on.

Some bigger scenarios require multiple tables are a back-wrenching size like 8×15′ (!). While one could make adjustments with reduced-size “Hinch” rulers (like 2/3″ per ruler unit instead of 1″ each), the bigger issue is whether you have enough models and most importantly, experienced players. I am of the opinion that the game’s ideal size is around a division and even at that may tend to run a longish game day, like 4-6 hours to play all the stated battle days. However the battle days speed up as activation dwindles, players “pass” and the day ends “early”. I’d suggest a chess clock to keep up the pace and finish.

My goal is to make more, smaller scenarios ideally with multiple days. One source of scenario material might be campaigns for platoon-per-stand games like Command Decision or Spearhead. For example, I am working on Milne Bay, New Guinea and Narvik, Norway. The latter might be a bit big but it has the added appeal of naval engagements.

One note: there were two scenarios in Invasion ’40 where the author just dispenses with Activation Points altogether! So why did he not assign them? He says “both sides were activated” so no need.

We know what he did but what should we do?

Indeed yours is a good question, Vaggelis. That it has no easy answer probably explains why GBoWWII has not become a successful wargame rule set. Which is a shame because how the games appear to realistically model important factors ignored in many other rule sets. Frequently wargamers gravitate towards wanting to make up their own scenarios. But many gamers’ military history knowledge may be limited to a given portion or a campaign of a few battles and little about logistics.

Most Great Battles of WWII scenarios are oriented to multi-day battles when typically ignored issues of line of communications and supply’s limitations assert themselves. Also, with companies being the smallest stand and battalions the maneuver element, the chain of command is less responsive to a given enemy movement. It is worth noting that because of gamer preference, many miniature rule sets allow a player to take actions that are below the level of his command, e.g. A battalion commander choosing the shell to fire for a given platoon’s tank guns.

An exception to the immediate reaction tendency is Spearhead that requires a plan that the player to stick to that. My beef with Spearhead is how easily its target priority rules can be gamed. But I think it is still mainly for battles that last a few hours not days.

How does GB model factors more realistically without excessive grit and rule detail? The concept of C Ops, road line of communications, reserves and replacements all help to construct multi-day battle limitations. For example, the outrunning of ones C Ops (over 12” puts you into a reduced supply state) and the need to protect ones C Ops (command and line of communications).

Most rule sets merely assume that both sides ability to attack and counter-attack are only limited by the players’ decision to do so. That might be realistic with smaller units (skirmish, squads or even platoons) and supply is either ignored or the rules imply that both sides have the same limits plus battle time is just a few minutes or hours long. Only in multi-day campaigns of several linked battles over multiple game days (which few gamers pull off) extra supplies may have a bearing.

Answering the AP question head on with facts, figures and formula

My ex-partner in Judges Guild was an engineer by training and used to say,

Everything can be quantified.”

And my response was,

“But should it be?”

If you’re tired of reading, I would understand if you’d say “no!”

This time I started to quantify despite reservations and wanted to use fairly accurate figures. This is a huge task and (so far) I have not finished a project to make a spreadsheet to determine Activation Points. My primary source material is the 1985 book called Numbers, Predictions and War by Col. T.N. Dupuy. His military history organization quantified a wide variety of factors on many battles to see if they could produce a complex formula to arrive at the factors that matched the actual battle result. His Quantified Judgement Model ended producing a database of 89 battles in WWII.

Versions of this formula are on tabs of the spreadsheet I already mentioned. You can see how far I got. Here’s a quick word about it…

These are Dupuy factors I considered: Air Superiority, Depth, Disruption/Morale, Effectiveness, Fatigue, Force Preponderance, Force Quality, Fortifications, Initiative, Intelligence/Recon., Leadership, Logistics, Manuever, Mobility, Momentum, Morale, Planning, Posture, Reserves, Season, Space, Surprise, Tactical Air, Technology, Terrain, Time, Training/Experience, Vulnerability, Weapons and Weather.

Since this was overwhelming, I decided to limit the issues to those with the largest impact and came up with the following. I eliminated minor issues and combined others to simplify. First, I have to admit that using Dupuy’s factors are more for convenience. Dupuy was calculating combat power for attack and defense both. Whereas Activation is sustained offensive potential and really a mere subset of Dupuy’s goal of comparative combat power, so his data might be only partly related to what’s needed.

Four Degrading Factors that affect the Base Factors if less than excellent: 

  1. Surprise
  2. Fatigue
  3. Morale, Disruption
  4. Weather, Terrain, Miscellaneous

These can degrade the total derived from the…

Four Base Factors for the degree of: 

  1. Leadership/Staff Work
  2. Supply
  3. Intelligence/Reconnaissance
  4. Tac Air/Superiority

If some of this doesn’t seem right, the spreadsheet may make my intention clear. Or you may be right! This set of formulas was my first effort. As I come back and skim it, some of it seems backwards or misguided. But it may be more supportable than a WAG (Wild Ass Guess). Indeed, there is a difference between Activation or Offensive Potential derived from my side’s efforts to be prepared for offensive action, and environmental factors like surprise, weather and terrain. But being that the goal of the project was to boil down to two factors (attacker and defender Activation Points), I did not want to introduce a whole new subsystem.

Why Does Activation Cost Vary By Size?

The game has an oddity in how activation costs vary by size: falling initially as more then increasing as still more. Do you know why? Per the chart… While it costs 1 AP per battalion to activate each (so 1/bn.), one gets a “discount” to activate a battlegroup of 3 battalions: costing only 2 APs (.67/bn). But then for 2 battlegroups, the cost is higher at 6 APs (back to 1/bn)! And increases again for a division of 3 battlegroups at a cost of 10 (1.11/battalion).

It is a game after all

Rather than put a lot effort into Dupuy-style factors, a scenario designer could:

  1. JMIP, Just Make It Up [which was James F Dunnigan’s advice in 1991 when I was stumped finding data in my effort to finish his Dissolution of the Soviet Union game idea]
  2. Roll some dice or pull chits before (and even during) the game, see the 1st tab of the spreadsheet titled Roll for it
  3. Pull cards during the game [this latter approach was hinted at in my Activation Card variant, a page on WargameCampaign.blogspot from July 7]
  4. Create a variant where Activation Points are awarded during some turn [see Robert’s variant I relay later on]
  5. Ignore Activation altogether like most wargames and allow both players to run wild

Uncertainty is part of what makes a game fun and challenging, perhaps even more realistic. Other than for Drop Zone scenarios, both sides know precise Activation Point amounts and times of arrival gives too much information of the other side’s capabilities. From reading accounts, it’s obvious that frequently commanders didn’t even know their own capability! How many battle reports talk about a delay of an attack due to various factors unrelated to the enemy?

While McFarlane only added #3’s “fog of war” element of drawing cards for activation in Drop Zone, why not for most or all scenarios?

The downside of truly random selection of Points is the risk that both sides might get few or no Activation Points and so create the gamer’s nightmare, Suppose They Gave A War And Nobody Came. That can happen with his Activation Cards! 

So here are several solutions:

  1. Roll dice or pull chits like the first tab of the spreadsheet
  2. Think about the number of Activation Points you want each side to have and make a single die roll (or chit pull as noted in #1’s spreadsheet reference, tab #1, green section) so D6+12 (i.e. 12 + the roll of one 6-sided die)  for the attacker and D6+6 for the defender. Consider whether there should be another roll (or chit pull) on future turn(s) …especially for the Defender to provide for Situational Imbalance. This puts a floor and ceiling on each amount.
  3. Make up a matrix process where either side has the higher activation total or both. The latter case of both with high is to set up the surprising situation where both sides are actively preparing for an attack. See the following:

How to do this without tipping the hands of either player is more of a challenge. My first thought is to secretly draw one of 4 lettered cards from a large envelope. They are used to determine the die roll for each division on your side (or adjust downward by a percentage of what’s missing):

Card Letter

  • A = Roll 6D4 [likely to produce an attacking posture]
  • B = Roll 4D6 [like to produce an attacking posture]
  • C = Roll 2D6 [likely to attack on a limited basis]
  • D = Roll 1D4 [likely to produce a defensive total]

Obviously the other 2 cards are kept in an envelope because neither side should know what was not drawn. A process of situational imbalance should then proceed to increase the chances of more (or fewer) points on following days… so this could be printed on each card:

  • A on day 1, B on day 2, C on day 3, D on day 4
  • B on day 1, C on day 2, D on day 3, D on day 4
  • C on day 1, B on day 2, A on day 3, A on day 4
  • D on day 1, C on day 2, B on day 3, A on day 4

Back to player choice

The GB rule section 9.6 says “In some scenarios the penalty for activation will be reflected in terms of Victory Points. Each scenario will list the Victory Points lost through activation.”
This is an interesting rule because it implies that player expenditure of supply, staff work and preparation costs something and might be used to justify either side activating more larger scale formations than otherwise allowed by the scenario limitations, again at the cost of victory points. This I need to think about. It seems like it may just be a game balancing factor and not historical in nature.

The aggressiveness level of certain armies (early-war Germans and late-war Americans for example) led me to have this Q and A with the author in 2002:

Q. If an activated unit took a town and then deactivated itself (something not explicitly allowed in the rules in the 1st place?)… for the defensive benefit, could one reactivate it later? Seems like one could allow it but perhaps a roll.
A. We do allow* units to deactivate [& thus penalize fire from enemy, but it will have to wait until night to receive new orders and re-activate. However, your idea of a die roll sounds like a good variant, especially for Germans which were encouraged to take personal initiative.

*Rule 9.4 Battalions and battlegroups can voluntarily “go to ground” by the owning player at the beginning of any of his turns.

This Q and A really doesn’t address the issue of how many Activation Points but a bit of flexibility about re-activating later the same day. But because of this I built a variant allowing activation due to initiative. But I think that it’s not a good idea. It does not address supply, staff work and preparation. It merely gave a perk to Germans for being trained to take initiative.

I have noted earlier variants for Activation Points being “grown organically”. This one is from a GB fan named Robert (sorry, I lost his last name). It could be useful particularly when one is starting with fewer Activation Points and the game assumes that the start date of the attack probably should have been postponed. (Though that begs the question of why didn’t they postpone the jump off until more was ready? Presumably the game starts when the attack is ready “enough”.)

Robert’s Action Points Variant

C Ops can use its diced-for 1 or 2 Action Points for normal actions (i.e. move) or may instead spend them to convert them to future turn Activation Points (use 20 sided die to keep score for each division).

Note that per normal Action Point chart, quality of C Ops will affect chance of action point(s) received. Ignore +10% if HQ attached. Add new modifier for COps only: -10% if isolated from source of supply (i.e. cannot trace supply line of any length without coming within 1” of enemy stands).

At night turn, consult scenario # & dice to see how many saved-up activation points carry over to next turn; cannot accumulate more than 20 Activation Points). If units are voluntarily deactivated to take advantage of defensive benefit, they may be reactivated. Units gone to ground may not be reactivated in same day. Each call for an Air Support template (with 1 round) requires expenditure of an Activation Point; scenario advises chance of receipt of 1 template/ round rolled for as On Call on Barrage Delay chart. Activation Delay Rolls are made on the Barrage Delay chart with following die roll modifiers: Bn with Regt HQ -10% Bn over 4” from Regt HQ +10% Bn’s Regt HQ over 12” from COps.

[I may have garbled his variant because I can’t see how the first two modifiers can matter to a divisional C Ops. Incidentally, I am uncomfortable with approach as it mixes two things that are different: Activation which presumably is multi-day pre-battle preparation with Actions which time & effort hour by hour. And it may give too much to the defender especially as his C Ops is less apt to move until forced to.]

The last word

If you have read this far, then I salute you! I admit that it may be TMI or actually TLRI, Too Little Real Information. I’d appreciate your input on this Gordian Knot. Perhaps you have already cut right through it!

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