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Subject: Good Idea in Theory, Bad Idea in Practice: Wargame Designs that Fail ... rss

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Roger Hobden
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The idea of this thread came in part from the discussion following the publication of yet another WW II wargame.

In the recent years, a few innovate designs were published in the tactical wargame area, and very rapidly these new designs were able to find a critical mass of enthusiastic and vocal supporters which led to the recognition of a valid system and the publication of other games based on the same design.

CC, COH and BOB are recent examples of such a phenomenon.

On the other hand, we have designs that seem to promise a really cool and innovative way of seeing things, but when publication time comes around, the total seems to be inferior to the sum of it's parts.

The arrival of such a product will generate mixed reviews, and war gamers on the fence will adopt a wait and see attitude, which then hurts the sales of the product and by domino effect, less support from the wargaming community to suggest corrections.

Add to that the fact that in areas like the WW II strategic and tactical, the market is already overcrowded with an excess of games, and you have a situation where newcomers will seldom get a "second chance", unless they are involved in self-publication, and have the necessary deep pockets to support a long game.

Recent WW II examples of tactical block games, strategic block games and strategic counter games come to mind.

Over 10,000 wargames have been published in the past sixty years.

What are the prime examples of "false good ideas" (designs that seem really cool, until you try them out) that you have experienced in the past ?

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Marcus
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Mallet wrote:
...

Over 10,000 wargames have been published in the past sixty years.
...


Yes, but half of those were expansions for ASL. ninja
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Jim F
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Fighting Formations sprang instantly to mind. I thought this was a clever design but somehow wasn't particularly fun to play.
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Greg S
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Ashiefan wrote:

Fighting Formations sprang instantly to mind. I thought this was a clever design but somehow wasn't particularly fun to play.


Sadly, I must agree.
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Kent Reuber
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Mallet wrote:
Recent WW II examples of tactical block games, strategic block games and strategic counter games come to mind.


What WWII tactical block games are you referring to? I've often thought that a grand-tactical WWII block game, with blocks representing companies or battalions, but I don't recall having ever seen any.
 
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Roger Hobden
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The three games I had in mind are:

War Stories: Liberty Road, Blocks in the East and The Supreme Commander.

What these games have in common is that they all needed, or need, significant modifications of key rules, compared to the initial published ones, to become "fun" games.

If you go on the BGG site of these three games, you will get the full story.
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War Stories is a game I didn't know about. I've downloaded the rules and will give it a read.
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Combat Commander: Europe -- The LARP never really caught on.
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SiMov games was a laudable effort to move away from IGO-UGO wargaming. However, the tedium of plotting movement, which grows exponentially with the size of a particular game, proved to be a cure worse than the ailment.
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Jason Cawley
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First let me preface this by saying my examples are mostly older, rather than recent design misses.

In Battlefleet Mars, they had a true Newtonian mechanics movement system in 3D. You tracked the velocity vector of each object in XY and XZ planes, with two counters on two "maps" (just squared grids) to record the 3D position. Ships movement ability was rated as the acceleration they achieve in one turn, letting them change their velocity components by 2 or 3 combined, for example. Seemed neat, if a bit much to track in paper and cardboard rather than with a computer.

But it was completely irrelevant to the combat system, pretty much. The best slow ships formed fire groups that moved into range then shot through the enemy fleet and slowly reversed to do it again, if necessary. Range had a marginal effect on the fire combat within the range limits, and target movement none at all. The players spent hours on the movement stuff whose net result was nil, on the outcome of the battle. In fact, the optimal tactic for the side with more of the high firepower but low acceleration ships was to put literally all of them in one location so their range to the enemy would always be precisely the same, so the enemy could not "firepower separate" them by anything they did. With no area damage effects this had no downside whatever.

A perfect example of thinking that a complicated bit of "engineering realism" must improve a game - when by the design of all the other game systems, in fact it had no operational significance whatever, and the attention lavished on it by the designers was thus utterly wasted. Along with the player's time. You could play it 3-4 times discovering all of the above, then it was pointless, and the "operational" game could be played with a fast combat resolution system instead of tactical fights. But that basically defeated the entire point of the game's existence in the first place.

In computer games, The Operational Art of War had the idea of tracking every category of beans and bullets, and allowing entirely configurable weapon types and ratings on different aspects of combat, all to be aggregated by the computer in combat resolution. The idea was to shield the player from all complexity in resolution of events, while trying to achieve realism in those by being as detailed as possible in the "combat accounting". Spreadsheets go to war. This was clearly motivated by some US military simulations designs of the 1970s - which incidentally didn't actually work very well, but that is another story.

In practice this was hopeless. First, the outcome of events was so opaque to starting players that the only way to determine what actions might make sense was to save a lot and try try again, like a medieval empiric experimenting with medicinal herbs. Then one would find ridiculous single optimums, in terms of what should attack together (there were weird scale effects, no force to space considerations to speak of - whole armies attacking single enemy units was usually optimal, etc), whether to use fire support arms at all (and thus strain your logistics) or just turn them off completely in the interest of thruput to the front line units, and other crazy trade offs that exist nowhere in actual military reality.

Players had no idea what they were doing, really, and then those who cracked an individual battle could stomp the AI or anyone else not using the same gaps in the program's realism. Instead of simulating any battle from WW II to the modern era, you looked for holes in some programmer's code routines to find exploitable, unrealistic assumptions throughout that code. Which was as interesting as a root canal. Complete bust of an idea. Notice how this direction was the exact opposite that board game design was taking around the same time - toward presenting the player with a moderate span of choices manipulating a moderate span of important goals etc.

In the Great Battles of the American Civil War series, the long running successors of Terrible Swift Sword (and overall, a solid game system), the later entries all start tracking individual cannon types and break a 6 gun artillery battery into as many as 4 separate counters. These all then get separate fire table lines modifying their firepower for range ,before all shooting on the same fire table. Sounds like it might be a big increase in realism and just kind a cool to know such things in such detail.

But then the combat table itself rewards "lot of little" shots so much that a mixed battery fires 3 times better at long range than rifled cannon (specialized, best at long range) and 2 times better at short range and uniform 12 lb Napoleons. This is hidden a bit behind mixes morale check types and chances of those inflicting this or that result, but if you tree it all out - which takes a short computer program, no human being has time for such things - you discover that silly (Confederate) 1s and 2s of inferior types outshoot large uniform (Union) batteries of the best specialized types. All because the designers didn't pay the slightest attention to the incentives they were handing to the players and the interaction of the system they were revising with the existing CRT.

In fact that whole series has suffered from unrealistic treatment of artillery in one respect or another since its inception, and after 25 years of design revisions has *still* not managed to get any of it right. The latest release, this year, has even more broken rules than versions from 20 years ago, encouraging "Panzer artillery" tactics with crazy rules like artillery in the front line being immune to small arms fire and canister fire until all infantry in the same hex is shot down to the last man. Meanwhile they are chasing down whether the 4th gun in this or that Confederate battery was actually a 6 lb smoothbore or a 6 lb howitzer. Players have to patch the game system with house rules to get anything remotely historical to happen in the actual fights.

Moral - do not try to substitute historical minutae for game design *thought*. Don't present players with complex min-max optimization problems that you really don't want them to solve ("should I fire this as one big shot or 3 small ones? The rules leave it up to me...") - they will solve them. No, it isn't their problem just because you left it up to them.
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Mike Smith
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I have always thought that there should be more games using a si-move compromise, where you put generalised order chits down simultaneously instead of writing orders. Fighting Sail and Game of Thrones both make use of this.
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Mike Smith
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I still think Fighting Formations is interesting. I think the problem was a lack of small to medium scenarios.
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J.L. Robert
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JasonC wrote:
Moral - do not try to substitute historical minutae for game design *thought*. Don't present players with complex min-max optimization problems that you really don't want them to solve ("should I fire this as one big shot or 3 small ones? The rules leave it up to me...") - they will solve them. No, it isn't their problem just because you left it up to them.


Can we, the wargaming community, try to get this guy to take over the design of future Europa Series games?
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Double-Blind games have never caught on because of their awkwardness if you have many units to play with. GDW's Market Garden is, I think, worth the effort.
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JasonC wrote:


Moral - do not try to substitute historical minutae for game design *thought*. Don't present players with complex min-max optimization problems that you really don't want them to solve ("should I fire this as one big shot or 3 small ones? The rules leave it up to me...") - they will solve them. No, it isn't their problem just because you left it up to them.



So far what I have learned from this thread is that Jason Cawley should be a game developer. Excellent analysis ...
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suPUR DUEper
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I am in a love/hate thing right now with Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe.

I love it because it does everything right:
-minor countries are minor
-peripheral theaters (Norway, Africa, etc.) are scaled correctly.
-the Med is all about supply
-air and naval is abstracted to the right degree
-Kriegsmarine is modelled correctly
-partisans, ultra, subs, and bombers are play a role but they are all elegantly modeled.
-the capabilities of all the major players are reflected correctly.
-no knockout blow for the Axis
-etc

I could go on and on. Simply put, it is easily the best simulation of WWII ETO I have played.

So what's the problem? The problem is, the game shows that WWII ETO is a difficult setting to try and make into a fun game. Picture a basketball game. One team jumps out to a quick 15 point lead. By halftime they are up by 2. At half time the team realizes they can't win; the other team is just way too strong. They instead just hope to keep the loss under 10 points. By the end of the game, they are blown out by 40. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to WWII.

USE correctly models the war. But that means it turns into a race game. You know Germany will collapse, it is just a matter of what turn. So, you can do a ton of tactical things like: take out Suez, get an additional minor to join, conquer Italy early, suppress a lend lease route, force the Germans to pull an air unit out of Russia, collapse the Soviets, use your partisans strategically to blow up production or use them tactically in coordination with an offensive, etc. But nothing you do is ever decisive. The game is so (correctly) resilient. Each turn you are doing a series of things to inch the collapse of Germany in one direction or the other.

So you end up investing an enormous amount of time (USE takes 60+ hours to play) and no matter what has happened during the game, Germany will be in its death throes by the end. The only question is did it happen sooner or later than historically? As the German, you could be rocking the house but you are still going to be crushed. As the Allies, you could lose Suez and have the Russians collapse but you are still going to obliterate Germany. The broad theme of the war will always play out the same. It is not a problem with the game; it is a problem with the war. Unlike WWI where it was touch and go into 1918, WWII was not even close by 1945.

Thus, my love/hate with USE. Love the simulation; not so fond of the situation it is trying to model. As I am playing, I keep asking myself, is it worth 60 hours of playing to see if I can hold out an extra two months. The jury is still out on that. Going back to the basketball analogy, halfway into the game both teams know who is going to win, it is whether you can cover the spread. Maybe it is just psychological but raising your arms as Germany at the end of 60 hours and rejoicing, I win! I held on to Hamburg, Berlin and Munich!!!! feels like you won by losing less.

The design didn't fail but I think the subject/setting is... problematic. USE is the first game to truly illustrate that issue for me.
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Jim F
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Mallet wrote:
The three games I had in mind are:

War Stories: Liberty Road, Blocks in the East and The Supreme Commander.

What these games have in common is that they all needed, or need, significant modifications of key rules, compared to the initial published ones, to become "fun" games.

If you go on the BGG site of these three games, you will get the full story.


I thought Supreme Commander was a much better game than USE although I did have the advantage of playing it after all the mods. I'm still hoping it will gain a second wind.
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Roger Hobden
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TedW wrote:

Maybe it is just psychological but raising your arms as Germany at the end of 60 hours and rejoicing, I win! I held on to Hamburg, Berlin and Munich!!!! feels like you won by losing less.

This is the dilemma of all asymmetrical wargame scenarios, no ?

The question appears to be : is it really worth playing a 60 hour game to find out by how many points did Germany lose ?
And how does USE compare to all other similar games from that perspective ?
I always buy these types of games only for their scenarios anyway, because I prefer to play a wargame in one day or less. cool

Now, if you are in the opinion that all the scenarios are worthless, that is another question altogether, because I just bought the game not long ago. angry
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Roger Hobden
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TedW wrote:

Maybe it is just psychological but raising your arms as Germany at the end of 60 hours and rejoicing, I win! I held on to Hamburg, Berlin and Munich!!!! feels like you won by losing less.

If the Wehrmacht had been able to to hold on to Hamburg, Munich and Berlin, that would have been remarkable indeed. whistle
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Mallet wrote:
TedW wrote:

Maybe it is just psychological but raising your arms as Germany at the end of 60 hours and rejoicing, I win! I held on to Hamburg, Berlin and Munich!!!! feels like you won by losing less.


The question appears to be : is it really worth playing a 60 hour game to find out by how many points did Germany lose ?
And how does USE compare to all other similar games from that perspective ?


You summarized that quite well.

I think in most WWII games (World in Flames, Third Reich, etc.), Germany is given knockout power either through victory conditions or an inexorably growing economy fueled by conquests.

In USE, Germany has a fixed counter limit and an economy that can only get so big. It does not grow through conquest (i.e. the material gains of a conquest are offset by administration and garrisoning of the conquered territories). So, no matter how well Germany is doing they are only going to have X units and Y production points.

So in WiF and 3R, the drama and excitement come from pushing so hard and fast that the Allies eventually break. In USE, the Allies can't be broken. This is far more historic but saps the tension/pressure out of the midgame. In USE you seem to be spending a large part of the game performing a host of tiny actions in the hopes that the sum total of their effects over 6 years will cause the Allies to be slightly ahead of or behind their historic timetable.
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Roger Hobden
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TedW wrote:

In USE, Germany has a fixed counter limit and an economy that can only get so big. It does not grow through conquest (i.e. the material gains of a conquest are offset by administration and garrisoning of the conquered territories). So, no matter how well Germany is doing they are only going to have X units and Y production points.

Interesting design choice.
Which of the two models would be the most accurate ?
Within the time scope of a few years, would the conquest of new territory be accompanied by an increase in overall productivity ?
Most strategic wargame designs answer "yes" to this question, IIRC. (Haven't played them all, most of them are way too long for me. ).
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Tom Willcockson
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Don't own Unconditional Surrender, however I guess I don't see why you couldn't have the Axis build up a large VP total which the Allies need to bring down to zero by the end of the game or close to it to gain various levels of victory. I think there can be plenty of tension and excitement for one side trying to build that up in the early game and then once the equilibrium has passed for the other to try and roll over the defender as quickly and powerfully as possible, thus keeping a level of tension in the game even though the end-result is a forgone conclusion. But once again, not sure how Unconditional Surrender does it. My reasons for passing on the game so far have more to do with the choice of board portrayal (sorry, but the east-west scale just does not look right to me) and I also think it was one of GMT's poorer executions of map and counter graphics.
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I think USE has it right. Maintaining control over an unwilling population probably offset any productivity gains (at least in the few years covered by the game).

So, if you are Germany, the calculus looks something like this:

I have a fixed army that can't get much bigger.
My allies are only good at (barely) plugging gaps in the line.
My economy isn't going to get any bigger and on a good day can only produce enough material to put 75% of the armed forces in attack supply.
No matter how many Russians I kill, they keep coming back.
America is coming and will soon drown me in material.
I realize all this in the winter of '41/'42 and there is nothing I can do to change it. My only goal is to keep the inevitable at bay for as long as possible.

The Allies for their part know the same thing. Both sides then joust for 4 years trying on the balance to end the war a month or two earlier/later than history.
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TomW731 wrote:
Don't own Unconditional Surrender, however I guess I don't see why you couldn't have the Axis build up a large VP total which the Allies need to bring down to zero by the end of the game or close to it to gain various levels of victory. I think there can be plenty of tension and excitement for one side trying to build that up in the early game and then once the equilibrium has passed for the other to try and roll over the defender as quickly and powerfully as possible, thus keeping a level of tension in the game even though the end-result is a forgone conclusion. But once again, not sure how Unconditional Surrender does it. My reasons for passing on the game so far have more to do with the choice of board portrayal (sorry, but the east-west scale just does not look right to me) and I also think it was one of GMT's poorer executions of map and counter graphics.


It does do this. But it is like watching a 26 mile marathon. You are not trying to see who wins but whether runner A can keep the margin of runner B's victory under 30 minutes. Over the course of 26 miles each runner is doing a ton of small things to effect the outcome. Drafting, setting a pace, running to the inside of the corners, etc. Each little thing is important but it is hard to appreciate (or get excited about) the impact of each. The tension is just not there. Not until the final mile does the excitement truly heat up.

Regarding the map, it really works well. Looks a bit unusual but does a very good job of modelling the scales involved.
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TedW wrote:

Both sides then joust for 4 years trying on the balance to end the war a month or two earlier/later than history.


Couldn't this issue get fixed by a few simple auto-win mechanisms, for example some VP ratio at the end of each turn and/or year, or the simultaneous capture or holding of a certain number of key cities ?
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