Hans and Carl take over the Nakatomi Plaza

This blog is to discuss game designs that I've been working on: insight, information, and updates. I've been the research expert (no, seriously, it says so in the rulebooks) for Dean Essig for The Gamers' line of products (Battalion Combat Series, Line of Battle, Standard Combat Series, Tactical Combat Series, and at times Operational Combat Series). Hans Kishel will chime in from time to time when he's free to discuss his designs (he's the big bad designer for OCS's The Blitzkrieg Legend and Smolensk: Barbarossa Derailed. Much like the villains in Die Hard, Hans is the brains and Carl is the muscle. Dean I guess would be John McClane. Enjoy and let's keep it light and civil... until we need hostages...
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Undaunted vs. Daunted: Health of the hobby vs. Go F**k Yourself... Yeah, we're going there...

Carl Fung
United States
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Last night I listened to Wild Weasel Podcast, Episode #17. Bruce Geryk's commentary portion (starting around the 42:30 mark) was a direct rebuttal to Marco Arnaudo's video review of Undaunted: Normandy.

tl;dl: Bruce tells Marco to "Go Fuck Yourself" with respect to the latter's comment about the health of the hobby and wanting easier wargames.

I agree with Bruce's blunt reply if not for some slightly different reasons. There's agreement in arguing against Marco's assessment that the game hobby need easier wargames and that dinosaur Grognards will be the only ones playing ASL until the meteor hits. Another thing is having more games like Undaunted is not the way to go for the future of wargaming. Yet I come from a slightly different angle with respect to historical accuracy.

I don't own Undaunted, as the description of the game as "a deck-building game that places you and your opponent in command of American or German forces". I'm not a Card Driven Game fan, but will play them if done right, having just purchased Empire of the Sun from the recent GMT sale, Paths of Glory being one of my most memorable game experiences, and struggling with figuring out Twilight Struggle as the US player. It's more the deck-building mechanic that puts me off under the guise of being a wargame. Mind you, I haven't played Memoir '44 either, but both of these fall into the same category if directly compared against Advanced Squad Leader, The Last Hundred Yards, or Combat Commander.

What put me over the top was the historical (or rather lack thereof) application in the game. I know the designer means well and David Thompson's other games (Pavlov's House and Castle Itter) are popular with Undaunted making the rounds in Social Media posts from wargamers. David Thompson includes the disclaimer in his Historical Note:

Note, however, that this is not a simulationist game. The core mechanic of deck-building is an obvious abstraction from the individual agency of the soldiers involved.
There's even a comment regarding the Soldiers' names that reads like the South Park disclaimer:

Names have been added to the cards in the game to add to the sense that you are in command of real soldiers and not pure abstractions. Some of the names in the US deck are based on those of the original playtesters of the game, but all other names have been generated from names that were common in the period and are not meant to refer to any person, living or dead.
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In this respect, I was surprised to see Black US soldiers depicted in the game. I'll admit it was another reason that put me off the game (not going into the whole Political Correctness or US Military Segregation argument) as it wasn't historically accurate.

I'm not trying to dump on the designer, but remember, I'm a history nut and I'm always struggling between the balance of history vs. gameplay but leaning towards the history side at least in terms of justification of decisions made in the game.

In a thread on BGG, David Thompson previews and touches on the game aspects and history behind the game:

Modeling the Rifle Platoon in Undaunted: Normandy

In the first thread, I was surprised by the comment "inconsistency in the composition of German rifle platoons during this period" entirely based on "In many cases, the German side was fighting with non-doctrinal unit compositions, oftentimes with remnant forces. There's no way we could model all the different possibilities with different cards. Instead, we get at that with different starting decks, different supply decks, etc." The designer draws too much from his reading on the various German kampfgruppen sent to Normandy and explains it out as "the Germans were inconsistent" (read my reply in the thread). This is without knowing the history of the German response to the D-Day landings and the inability to motorize and mobilize full divisions in response (coupled with Hitler's limited release of forces to the landings). So what the designer does is he finds the Field Manual for the US Rifle Platoon in WWII (fine as it is), creates characters for each of the roles (fine as it is) but then proceeds to duplicate the same for the German Rifle Platoon (entirely wrong).

The issue I have with this is that the way the German Rifle Platoon was composed and how it fights was different than the US Rifle Platoon. Joe Balkoski's iconic Beyond the Beachhead breaks down these differences magnificently in Chapter 5: Men and Guns.

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Ignoring these differences under the pretense of "inconsistency in the composition of German rifle platoons" based on the incorrect assumption "the German side was fighting with non-doctrinal unit compositions" and thus making German Rifle Platoons as the exact composition of US Rifle Platoons for gameplay purposes to me is disingenuous from a historical perspective. And I stress the historical perspective because while we can endlessly debate whether or not ASL is an accurate depiction of WWII Squad combat or WWII action movie based, its tactics and relative squad firepower, accurate depictions of unique weapons and equipment give a decent account of battles were fought in WWII (less things like Command and Control and my misgivings that I feel US 6-6-6 Squads are overvaluing the Garands and B.A.R.'s).

Fundamentally, the German Rifle Platoons were different from US Rifle Platoons. By 1944, German platoons were smaller due to lessening manpower, reliance on less leaders to command men, and compensated by more automatic firepower (i.e. the MG42, MP40, and StG44). Indeed, the trope that the German Squad was basically built around the MG42 and the riflemen as glorified Ammo Bearers does hold some truth. Compare this to US Rifle Squads that had the lowly B.A.R. (NOT a Machine Gun).

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German Rifle Platoon schemetic from Battle Order

In 1944, German Infantry Companies only had TWO officers, one commanding the company and the other commanding a platoon while the other two platoons were commanded by Sergeants. Contrast this against US Rifle Companies with SIX officers and US Paratrooper Rifle Companies with EIGHT officers (two Lieutenants per platoon!). In each Rifle Platoon there was also eight NCO's compared to the Germans with only an NCO per squad (less the one commanding the platoon). The eight NCO's included three Squad Leaders (nominally Staff Sergeants), three Assistant Squad Leaders (nominally Sergeants... not Corporals per the latter TO&E's), a Platoon Sergeant, and a Platoon Guide. What the hell is a Platoon Guide? I don't think many have heard of one as they don't get written about often and don't exist in modern platoons. Per the official description, "The platoon guide prevents straggling and enforces orders concerning cover, concealment, and discipline. His position is usually in rear of the platoon, where he observes the situation on the flanks and the rear."

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US Rifle Squad schemetic from Battle Order

This inherently shows why the US and German platoon organizations were different and hence fought differently. In any sort of wish to show how the two sides fought in Normandy, it would be great to showcase these differences. It's not right to mirror the US Platoon organization as the German either because the research wasn't done and it fits within the same game playability for both sides.

I want and like wargames to have a modicum of accuracy as this leads to the teaching element of history and wargames. My precept for designing is to exhaust the historical research so the guts of the wargame is along accurate lines. Whether or not the players understand or appreciate the accuracy is another matter, but its there carte blanche. If the design has different make ups for the US and German platoons and this leads to design issues, then I would at least look to resolve it to highlight the differences. It would also be nice to showcase the differences between the two so players would have different ways of operating when playing either side instead of having both sides act and behave similarly. This is not an overhanded way of teaching history but rather built into the game itself without really jamming it down the players' throats. In ASL, each nation's squads behave differently, and experienced players know how best to use each nation's strengths or weaknesses to win. Otherwise we have a generic platoon/squad/individual game under the guise of being a WWII game.

This is ultimately why I disagree with Marco's assessment. It's less about simpler wargames (or as he puts it, forgetting to put a marker on a vehicle that's moved) but giving the wrong lessen from a wargame based on history. History happened, we should try to mimic it to a degree lest it becomes fiction with WWII uniforms and weapons. Simple games aren't bad at all (see SCS), but should try to align with history.

And here's the funny thing, someone surmised that Marco was referring to Last Hundred Yards in his comment about placing markers on moving vehicles. I don't own Last Hundred Yards either, debating heavily on preordering it then foregoing it in the GMT sale. I was intrigued by the time mechanics and command and control aspects but the few examples of play on the GMT blog didn't really give me a sense of the exact gameplay and mechanics. The more and more I read reviews, I decided not to get it, despite it looking to have unique mechanics (but no opportunity Fire?). One of the issues I had with the game were the Small Arms Values (SAV). On the same level as generic/copycat organization in Undaunted, US and German Squads both have an SAV of 1. The squads look to represent generic squads, be they Rifle, Volksgrenadier, Paratrooper, etc. as the designer Mike Denson puts it, the game focusses on the behaviour of small units in small actions. This is fine but if all the Squad's SAV's are 1 there's little to no distinction between nationality squad types (MG42 vs B.A.R.). With SAV's in low increments, I can understand the inability of nuance but I find the lack of it creates a generic feel between the forces.

I'm critical of this because I can and in subtle ways want to teach the history through the games by researching the hell out of them and on occasion calling out historical errors in games (without going so far as to completely rewrite another game's rules for "more realism"). That's my modus operandi and how I approach my designs. I won't/can't force it on others but I likely won't be buying those games either. I enjoy the feedback when players appreciate such details and why things were done the way they are in the game with respect to history.

Ultimately I may be a hypocrite as I'd likely buy such a game when I introduce my kids to wargaming. But I'll know it's just a game. Trying to draw conclusions that those would be the future of wargames leads us to not learn history correctly. And I would NEVER say that future wargame designs should be dictated one way or another... let the market decide. In the meantime, I'll keep designing and posting on this blog on amazeballs historical research findings.

Here's Marco's review video.

Oh, and did you know I was interviewed by Bruce Geryk in Episode #7? He interviewed me about BCS Last Blitzkrieg: Wacht am Rhein, The Battle of the Bulge. I hate hearing myself recorded and felt I was unintentionally using a fake radio voice. I stumbled twice, not addressing well his question about Wacht am Rhein, to which I thought he was referring to the DG GOSS version but he may have been referring to the original SPI version. I also blanked on Grabner's name when referencing his dash across the Arnhem bridge in describing German Recon Battalions and the hardy and brash nature of the men assigned to them. Yet along the lines historical accuracy, Bruce asked me about the sort of mythbusting in Last Blitzkrieg with respect to the umpteen other Bulge games out there. To paraphrase, I'm proud that there's no magical Trojan Horse Skorzeny rule in the game.

History can be taught in many ways... and please don't water it down.
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