Unwritten assumptions

I may just be from an ancient wargaming tradition but I wonder if anyone else has had a similar adjustment to make regarding the modern trend towards “lists”, points and player interactivity in scenario design? And do any of these comments trigger ideas of how you might tweak? Or at least make you aware of unwritten assumptions.

When we started playing the pre-cursor of Tractics in 1970 we had a 6×10′ sand table and the norm was that the Judge (not called referee or gamemaster) made the terrain, typed the orders and oversaw the players’ hidden movement. Being before the internet or ruleset supplements, we had the US Army green books a few blocks away at the library and the Handbook on German Military Forces to use as ideas for Scenarios. We put on about 70 of these historically atmospheric situations over about 2 years of high school. Usually 5-7 hours long with a quick break for lunch upstairs.

There were plenty of surprises as intel was imperfect and the gamers had to roll with the punches and might have their own reserves to call on.

Much of the unwritten assumptions about the game were directly received from gamers who were instrumental in the early design of Tractics and wargames in general — Doug Cragoe (the Infantry Condensed Fire Virgin author), Gygax (thru the IFW) and Reese (whose tanks I got when he joined the army) plus Tucker (who sent me 3 copies of his Fast Rules, but I never met, but would like to know where he is now)—together their initials made up the ruleset name, GRT. So these assumptions were passed “hand to hand” like the original Samzidat edition of GRT ruleset and charts before it was published as Tractics. So, in retyping those on manual typewriters we also learned the rules, then passed them to someone else.

Babies having boomed, we had lots of WWII-familiar players (whose dads had fought in the War) and as we were “open for business” in the basement of a shopping mall space donated to us. A neutral place to walk in with sort-of “hours” helped overcome the “going to someone’s house” hesitancy otherwise. A $1 lifetime initiation fee paid for club board games, terrain, mimeo newsletters and postcards mailed as game invitations but having mostly weekly games, the regulars needed no postcard reminder.

We went to trouble to make accurate or at least plausible OBs and scenarios. We felt that our games were *very* realistic insofar as we had to take into account armor slope and angle of incidence (the mathematical formulae I memorized and calculated in my head fairly soon). But with time we realized that the “soft” systems of the rules were as weak as the armor calc/stats *seemed* strong (then I start learning about the quality of steel and got a further minus on my Ruleset Arrorance Level). Morale and infantry action plus turn sequence particularly were poor or even ridiculous.

So there are some things that SEEM different to me about how people play these games now but I may be just not up to speed about assumptions “everyone knows”*:
• Less or no hidden movement
• The choice of various kit from lists and what I don’t know is whether there’s intel that allows the other player to react “on the fly” in setting up the game to try to counter those support choices.

I am guessing that some of these approaches have grown from how typically there are just 2 players, at least when a local gamer starts out. And so a Judge is just not a practical option be. Time may be more limited as players are more apt to be working and not oblivious students as we were.

There is also a strong culture to make beautiful models and terrain now—which may be off-putting to some of us ham-handed gamers. The amazing breadth of scales and modelling options/infrastructure is amazing. Back then AHM Rocco HO was it and we had to scratch build a lot of the Russians particularly until we discovered Rosskopf. GHQ was just starting to flesh out its line.

I now think that 15mm may be the one scale for all (though I have 3 scales personally or perhaps why I pine for one scale)… though I’d love to build a third sand table. We never hesitated to use the wrong model for what it was “really” in this game. Indeed we made a number of Russian “Nick” tanks that were really kit-bashed Saladins with tracks so that we’d have stand-in’s for BT7 and T60s. I know this is a no-no for many people. But in my (deficient) mind the beautiful free-form sand table terrain and the sheer tension of hidden fire and movement made up for the models’ weaknesses.

Based on this background, do you view the judge-made scenario and game oversight as “spoon feeding”? I recognize the modern approach invites more player pro-activity.

An aside, now you can see why I chose the photo at top with the taskmaster lording over the serfs. I am saying that the taskmaster was me most of the time (only a few judged games too). And the hapless serfs were the players who were given their order and OB then go “have at it”.

Can you see how the (possibly) interactive force selection by players is a hurdle for me then?

I love the Battle Rating loss concept but not really clear on how different this is than morale failure in other games. Or is that it’s just less predictable?

Likewise, points! It has only sunk in to me that this is just a way of having each side come up with a roughly comparable force. (Or proportional to the mission.) But we rarely made games “balanced” in any meaningful way. Our rationale was that life was unfair but maniacs were force multipliers.

P.S. I think I have brought up Hidden Movement in an earlier post and that garnered a lot viceral rejection by some players because it struck them as not worth it. Perhaps, but a very different, tense sort of game. Indeed many of our HM Systems were probably not worth it but I think there may be a place for it still even if it is not done in a purist fashion.

In one game the hidden Germans had only 3 tanks that they skillfully moved via covered avenues on a rugged series of hills after each fire; from some distant firing positions only firing machine guns to give the impression of infantry support along with defending tanks. Sure enough the mixed company of US tanks and armored infantry deployed to painstakingly search** gaining the Germans time to bring on late reinforcements.

Since only the judge really knew what was going on “off the board” he was aware of the full game and so an expansive and fascinating view of unfolding, than either side’s players could have.

*Which could be a worthwhile introductory page to help dinosaurs like me and tykes who come from left field never having seen a game like this. What ARE the assumptions and likely local variations.

**Tractics required the players to identify where each pair of eyes looked, though buttoned tank crews were severely limited. The US forces were searching much closer that the distant German locations. Eventually one Panther was spotted and fired upon: a turret ring hit!

We documented most the games in a photo album which was a great reference. Better than digital photos ‘lost’ on a hard drive with no captions or written summary. Few people can retain much later without this sort of quick write up.

More Comments

I posted all above at the Official Battlegroup Facebook Group Page. I responded to comments and discussion about this, go to the Official Battlegroup Facebook Group Page to see more. Here are a few of my added thoughts:

I asked several questions but mostly to get responses and feedback. Thanks for that.

For those very familiar with the rule system and supplement(s), it may be hard to remember how it was first approaching it cold. And maybe never did—meaning they were taught by an experienced veteran and brought along.

I had to remake the QRS just so could fathom it. But again, no one here (in Uruguay) plays BG (though Diego is just across the Rio de la Plata but that’s more like a sea so not a short hop). So I was working thru it.

Then I got redirected because a new gamer popped up and asked “want to learn Chain of Command?” and so I said why not? I figure that will give another comparison. So learning BG is on the back burner for the moment. I learn lots by reading the FB group though.

Yes, the TOT, all Toys On Table became the rage for Command Decision. I guess my troops and tanks are painted so badly, I’d really rather they weren’t seen. Seriously, it’s just part of my perception of realism. But I recognize that the purist approach is probably not always so accurate.

Note that I am not complaining at all about the modern approach to wargames just contrasting with my different background. It is soaking in that there are some very positive aspects to the more proactive approach that players take now without a Judge—which we thought of as simulation but was also very passive for the players. And having so much in the way of reference and modelling stuff, more people can move past what it took a small minority of us fanatics could do imperfectly.

To sum it up, I give you a meme that applies to me as well as others.

Incidentally, I met a German guy in Uruguay who swears that this is his photo as young boy in post-war Germany. He may be joshing though.



5 thoughts on “Unwritten assumptions

  1. I’m with you here. The biggest unwritten assumption these days is that minis are required and to have anything less is substandard. There is also a segment of the hobby that is list dominated; they usually are also hyper competitive.
    When younger my main miniatures games were Harpoon & Star Fleet Battles though later we moved onto Dirtside. Although we had some minis the fact was we were kids on a small budget so a lot of our models were stand-ins. Some of my tanks were literally wood with bocks with cut dowels for turrets labeled with the type. US were green, the Germans gray. Not pretty but it worked in Moms unused garden in the backyard. Even used an old periscope toy to check LOS between models! It didn’t make the game less enjoyable.
    These days my boys can’t play any game without models or minis. Even when playing a tabletop hex & counter boardgame I find their 15mm tanks set nearby. They tell me it helps them imagine what the counters represent. That said, they usually do scenario design like you did; find a map and OOB in a book and start the story. When they found my old GDW Command Decision Barbarossa 25 they fully embraced the concept of recreating large battles at a smaller echelon of organization. Don’t know if that really flies elsewhere….
    The infatuation with lists has gone too far. Look at something like X-Wing where the lists are nearly everything. My Boys started out playing X-Wing but got destroyed because they brought the models they had to games and were crushed by the hyper competitive players who built dream lists. Those a$$holes didn’t want to play with kids who “weren’t serious enough.”
    Our generation were/are much more creative on gaming. We made do with what we had or could afford. It didn’t make it less enjoyable; indeed, I think we were better connected to the games which is why we still play after 40 years.


    1. Thanks. I think grognards and ‘kids’ could learn some things from each other. Wargaming has evolved to emphasize aspects that were already there: history, scale modelling and hyper-competition. I’ve come to see lists as a way to combat the latter–avoid or at least discourage ahistorical choices for pure competition. Even having choices took some getting used to for me–the only choice usually was which side you were going to take! And yet that may not have been historical itself. Certainly platoon or battalion commanders would ask for forces he thought he needed. Being a poor modeler, I left that to others and focused more on learning the rules and developing scenarios. But now each player is more involved in co-creating. I think that could spark debates about what forces were historical and that’s good… instead of being passive consumers of the judge’s OB as written for that game. The hyper competition is not my style but isn’t it just another player preference? When you ask rules designers about how some people defeat the original intent of their rules, I get the answer “Different strokes for different folks. THere are no ‘rules police’.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, my background was war gaming first as well, and we had lists, otherwise known as orders of battle. From the time we actively started playing competitively it was very important for us to accurately recreate battles with the forces that were actually present on the battlefield. Being a military brat, I always had access to the army war college library on the military base where my Dad was stationed which included the green books as well as detailed battle reports of campaigns written by various commanders that were submitted as after action reports. Many days after school you could find me at the base library reading these books, and going over these reports to better determine what actually occurred during the battles, both in terms of combat units involved, and the logistics and morale situation of the troops.

    When me and my friends wargamed, we would examine the order of battle, and then place our units on the hex maps, and often partially concealed our actual order of battle by putting a weak or innocuous counter on the top of the stack in order to deceive our foe of our actual force constitution, at least until the time our units were actually engaged. This masking seemed to work well to simulate the fog of war, but we were always on the lookout for better options, to better reflect the actual uncertainty in battle, so we could hone our skills and making good intuitive decisions as combat commanders (i.e. what we were unconsciously practicing to be). Jim Dunnigan and his crew at SPI were always really good at building historically accurate simulations, as they did first rate research into actual orders-of-battle, logistics, and morale.

    I remember starting to experiment with “what-if” scenarios though, to see just how close to defeat the victorious side really was, and that was a real eye-opener for me. Panzer Leader had variant rules at the back of the rules book called “The Macro game” where force composition, lists, or orders-of-battle for games could be randomly selected using dice. Squad Leader had an almost identical system, and included a method for selecting forces for randomly generating scenarios using a deck of playing cards, and after we played all of the battles or list scenarios provided by Avalon Hill, we used the random scenario system so we could practice dealing with an unknown opposition force strength. We weren’t seeking to make the battles balanced, but to see at what point, we could wrest an advantage from our foe with literally the hand we were dealt.

    Avalon Hill had taken the lead from SPI into simulations research by creating these variable and random battle scenarios, so we could really experiment with force composition and reinforcement timing schedules, to alter the out come of fictional, as well as historical battles.

    We would also look at adding or removing units into the historical order-of-battle to see at what point the battle would tip. I remember with Panzer Leader, Battle of the Bulge was one of our favorites, and in many of the scenarios for the siege of Bastogne, We found that If the Germans had fielded one more Panzergrenadier regiment with a Panzer Battalion, on almost any day of the battle, they would have breached the American perimeter and forced the surrender of the garrison at Bastogne. Anyone who says that American Victory at the Battle of the Bulge was a certain thing, had no idea what they were talking about, it was really a very close fight. As it turned out, the 101st Airborne division and two armored combat command Brigades tied down eleven German divisions for ten critical days in, and around Bastogne. If the Germans had waited, and not pressed their attacks until all of their reinforcements had arrived, or if the various reinforcement units had arrived sooner, then Bastogne would have fallen, and the Americans would have faced eleven additional divisions on the roads to Antwerp.

    We actually didn’t start playing using miniatures until 1979 or so, and I remember playing games using Tractics and 1/285 scale armor and infantry stands especially often in 1980 and 1981. We also were really interested in, and played modern NATO vs. Warsaw Pact scenarios too. I met Mike Reese and his son for the first time last year at GaryCon, he was running a US vs. ISIS in Iraq game on a beautiful sand table that he made in the Legends of Wargaming room. I have some photos of that around here somewhere. I really should post that up over on my gaming website, or perhaps here.

    I think we used a variant of Tractics in the late 70’s early 80’s as well to run 1/72 scale wargames as well. We had all collected some 1/72 Airfix, Revell, and Hasegawa models that we used with the Airfix and Revell plastic infantry, and these were really gorgeous when they were painted up right. I wish I still had my 1/72 WWII collection. We would setup a table Friday night, and played in our homes all day, and late into the night on Friday and Saturday, and sometimes even late on Sunday. After high school graduation we had even more time to game because we had our own apartments and could setup sand tables, and then leave them setup, sometimes for weeks.


    1. Thanks for telling your story. You had a unique approach: distilling down historical situations to the balancing point. This gave insight about the effectiveness of the units involved plus which were not foregone conclusions. I wonder how long it took before you realized your motivation. My point was that these assumptions or motivations seemed natural and so may not have been recognized until later or at all. So when some because rules writers, their assumptions are only party written down. Then others come along like I did and are puzzled by what seemed obvious to the authors.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.