Tractics & SUTC

The legendary Modern War in Miniature and Tractics (or what we called GRT when it was published in Samizdat) come up in web discussions of excellence in wargaming. I have mentioned Tractics (at least) several times (enter a search on that name, found on the left hand of every blog page) but occurred to me to write about Tractics and what little I know aboutichael Korns & SUTC’s Modern War in Miniature (MWiM).

Modern War in Miniature

First, one can download a free copy of MWiM by clicking here. The blogger who posted has had it up for five years without any apparent challenge. Copyrighted in 1966, it’s been out of print since the company disappeared in the 70s (when I tried to order a copy after getting the SUTC catalog that I found the address for from the Whole Earth Catalog which was sort of like the paper “internet” of those days. It seems unlikely that the copyright was renewed in time.

SUTCcatalog

So I felt for 40 years that I was missing something until about 2011 a friend sent me a copy of this rare rule booklet. It may be very valuable because of Jon Peterson’s big book of the Dungeons & Dragons milieu Playing At The World (PatW, a 720-page paperback) mentions it as possibly the first role-playing game. When I scanned through it I was disappointed because it seemed incomplete or impractical. Here’s a quote from a commenter, Richard Burnet, on Don Dueck’s linked blog with the scan of MWiM:

Richard Burnett says:
April 30, 2015 at 8:33 am
Don
I guess you dont know about Ned Zuparko, his brother, me, and a cast of about ten who played Small Unit Tactical Combat, the game that Korns derived from MWiM with charts covering chances and factors for observation, wounds, weapon accuracy, effects of damage to tanks, etc. These charts/rules fo not appear in MWiM as it gives the stats that SUTC is derived
And after having umpired SUTC and researched small unit tactics I had to alter Korns game, somewhat. If you have a copy of SUTC, you willnote quickly seversl problems.
Korns advice for the umpire is well short. Many necessary charts are missing, especially regarding the non player figures/characters
Only tanks have damage charts, indeed, stats on cars jeeps trucks are not in MWiM. Animals also not in either.
And lots more
But how do you write an adequate advice for the umpire? especially when charts necessary are lacking. Where is the sdvice on scenario creation??
as you can note, I have been with this umpired game where the plsyers know little for some time

Richard points out some of the issues that I didn’t document at the time of scan through his rules. I may go back and take another look now that I have had a chance to consider this further. But these “flaws” in Michael’s rules may be less than they seem. As Jon says in PatW, Korns’ rules are in the genre of “Free Kriegspiel” and so an experienced Judge can just “make it up”. Personally I don’t really like that approach, Bob Bledsaw, and I always felt that the Judge should roll for everything so even he may be surprised. But what to roll if “charts” are incomplete or missing? Well, you have to have a core mechanic for unaddressed items. In our Middle Earth themed campaign of 1974-1976 (at least that’s when I was active), this was my default. I can’t speak for Bob; he may have gone in other directions:

2D6:

  • 2 – Extremely negative
  • 3-5 – Negative
  • 6-8 – Neutral
  • 9-11 – Positive
  • 12 – Extremely positive

Yes, one could add a +1 or -1 as it seemed right. But why complicate? Whenever we have had a mid-game rules dispute and ended up rolling, John Holtz used to say “The Dice Knew (the right answer).”

The supposed detailed realism aspect of a game like Tractics (or MWiM) may be much less important than putting the players in similar constraints to a commander at that level. Meaning if you are squad commander, you have a minimal field of view. Not the view from a hot air balloon (plus walkie-talkie). Or a Battalion or Divisional commander, one is remote to the action (usually and if not, limited) and yet most games let the general pick the type of shell a given platoon is firing and whether to use its pintle MG, for example. Why? Because gamers like to shoot. But it’s not realistic and no one really cares about that.

Korns’ approach is even beyond a “Double Blind” game which is where you have two identical tables and duplicate forces for both sides. One could put a curtain down the middle of your ping pong table and only the Judge can stand at the curtain to see both sides. So you see only your side’s forces and just what enemies you have spotted. Likewise for the enemy. And of course, you are still the 5000′ general able to all those friendly troops that really are out of your view. And moving as you wanted them to, and when. But it’s a game. And a tense game since you have to be more cautious than when the enemy is set-up on the board but un-spotted.

Getting back to Korns’ approach, I suggest that you pick any old rule system that you are familiar with. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to improve on it, try a game where the players are isolated and have to rely on their maps and your description. You will be busy moving troops on the table and they may be in another room having a great time—or if not, well you tried something fairly simple without a lot of wasted time spent on “better rules design”.

Not having scanned through MWiM again yet, I don’t know how Michael deals with the issue of both sides intercepting the commentary of and for the other side. Nowadays with cell phones and headsets, one could have some sort of switch and the Judge could go back and forth on two channels.

Will the ultimate realism make it a fun game? Each of us may pick a different balance between those two values. One thing to consider is that most games are really “story development” and the more you know (unrealistically as the 5000′ general), the more satisfying it might be for some.  To the degree that the players are co-creators of the story then judge merely sets the scene.

Finally, we live in a world where people text each across the room. The heads bent down towards their screens. When people get together to play a game do we want to isolate the players who only hear the judge through an earpiece? At that point, this is not a lot different from a MMORPG with the players on various continents.

Tractics

We started playing Tractics when Doug Cragoe of Springfield IL came to one of ICD games in Decatur in 1970 and left his handwritten Samizdat copy of “GRT” (stood for Gygax, Reece & Tucker) that I assume he got from Michael Reese because Doug also sold me a bunch Rosskopf HO scale Russian tanks that Reese sold to him when he went into the army. GRT was the basis for 1971’s professionally published Tractics that we played about 70 times from 1970-1977 (50 of which were sand table terrain made specially for planned scenarios with map and typed orders, plus 20 on recycled terrain—thrown together).

TracticsWallChartsWEB
A really bad picture of our Tractics chart wall with the 6×10′ sand table in the foreground.

Since we did not have 20 sided dice in 1970, we used TOAD balls (standing for Tucker’s Original Adjustable Device) which were red billiard counters, truncated spheres with the numbers 1-15 on them with 16-20 crudely repainted from a second set billiard counters. These I stirred around in a unnecessarily large ice-cream tub and it made a whirring racket that came to symbolize the sound of high-velocity shells being fired at you from a covered position. From the other room, the defender and I would likely hear, “Oh NO!”

BilliardCountersTracticsShake_bottle_and_peas
Here’s some billiard counters I found on the web under Wiki listing Kelly Pool. They look just like we used to use.

Here I am probably adjudicating a search for hidden defenders because I appear to be holding a map and I am not standing on the other side of the table where all the charts and TOAD balls’ tub was.

PictorialHistoryOfTheICD_photoonlyWEB
This demonstrates the reason to digitize old photos before they get wrecked by moisture! Here is an “action” shot of a Tractics game in progress in the ICD bunker.

What made Tractics remarkable was its incredibly detailed set of statistical charts showing the thickness of armor in millimeters, a chart to increase that armor based on slope combined with roll for exact hit location’s “angle of incidence” (the degrees different from perpendicular) plus armor penetration (in mm’s). If it penetrated, you’d roll for what happened. Even if did not penetrate, there was a chance of hitting vision ports, bogie wheel etc. Some have criticized that this latter possibility is overstated and that would be easy enough to reduce the chance of.

But after all that care and detail, the game had ridiculous features like a turn sequence that was not just IGOUGO but:

In odd turns:

  1. Side A’s infantry  moves
  2. Side B moves all
  3. Side A moves vehicles

Then switch A & B for even numbered turns.

So the clever tactic to defeat heavily armored enemies was to wait for your chance to move last and drive around to the now stationary defender’s flank. This was ridiculous and I assume largely corrected by a rules variant published by TSR allowing Opportunity Fire so that stationary tank could shoot your flank on the way around to a view from its flank. But we were pretty much done with Tractics by then so I don’t think we played that way more than once.

Another thing that bothered us was the way that one could play for six hours to refight an eight-minute battle where both sides were destroyed. One could blame this on youthful (we were in the last two years of high school then) ignorance and abandon. Indeed we might have done a better job of recon. But wouldn’t it have been a better game if there were orders our troops did not follow and morale that represented their drive for self-preservation? Command Decision in 1986 introduced the brilliant feature of placing orders in the penultimate phase then checking morale based on a variety of factors like enemy proximity and sometimes CD troops didn’t go forward, fell back or left the board discreetly!

I expect to have  more to say on this so check back to see the latest.


Tractics7-1-74WEB
This is the last in a series of about 4 years of Tractics games. This was just after the sand table had been sold and we went to Gen Con ’74 and got distracted by D&D for several years. Other planned scenarios are noted at the upper right and reference earlier photo pages.

 

 

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