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Subject: Ungameable Battles rss

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Brian Morris
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Someone a few threads below has a thread about the Battle of Austerlitz being described as "ungameable". It's an interesting topic actually the idea of battles that are ungameable. I'm curious as to what folks think are some of the more difficult battles to game.

In my mind there are two things that make a battle more difficult to simulate. The first is lack of knowledge. Not by the designer but the generals. Case in point one of the major factors in the civil war was the lack of knowledge about enemy forces. Take for example Chancellorsville. One of the biggest events of that battle was Jackson's flank march that surprised Hooker's Army of the Potomac and did serious damage to the XI Corp. How can you simulate something like that on a boardgame where all of your pieces are in full view of your opponent?

Another example is Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863. The biggest factor in the meeting of Lee's forces with Meade at Gettysburg was Lee's lack of knowledge of the whereabouts of Meade's army. Lee had to quickly reform his army near Chambersburg when he discovered that the Army of the Potomac was much farther north than he expected resulting in Henry Heth being surprised when he suddenly ran into the I Corps in McPheason's Woods just west of Gettysburg.

I've actually played Roads to Gettysburg and while it's an enjoyable game covering the campaign at an operational level it simply can't recreate the campaign because all units are visible to both players the entire time. It is literally impossible to recreate the Battle of Gettysburg as it played out in real life with that game simply because the fog of war factor is not there. Mind you this is one of the reasons block wargames are becoming more and more interesting to me.

The second thing in my mind that makes it hard to recreate a battle is the mentality of the commanders. It is for this specific reason I think that the Battle of Antietam is perhaps the hardest battle of the American Civil War to recreate. McClellan waited a full day to attack Lee. When he did he sent in his forces piecemeal while keeping large numbers of his men in reserve who were never sent into the fight. Little Mac had a huge advantage in that battle and had he not been so cautious (I swear cautious in this case is putting it mildly) he could have literally destroyed Lee's Army. One of the few times in the war where an army was in that kind of peril.

The problem is how do you game Antietam? If you just give both sides the historically accurate number of troops and say go at it the Union should win an easy victory. The result is designers are forced to game it. A good example of this is In their Quiet Fields II where Dean Essig uses McClellan Points to handcuff the Union player to behave more like McClellan. A rather novel approach that to be honest likely works better than any other system I've seen to deal with the problem.

So that's my take on ungameable battles. I'm curious as to what battles others here find to be either ungameable or at the very least extremely difficult.
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Cosmic Charlie
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It seems to me one needs to play a double blind campaign where certain battles may or may not happen rather than try to reproduce a certain, specific engagement.

(I'd rather not be forced to command in the style of McClellan, a man worthy of little respect on numerous levels.)
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Brian Morris
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Unfortunately in a classic wargame style game double blind is rather unwieldy in and of itself. However I honestly can't think of any way you could truly simulate Lee's invasion on a campaign level otherwise. For that matter most parts of the American Civil War were like this. Grant was surprised at Shiloh, Lee at Gettysburg, Hooker at Chancellorsville. In all those battles the lack of knowledge of the enemy's units played a huge factor in the battles and it's really difficult to simulate that aspect of it.

In terms of command style that's another thing that you bring up. Part of the fun of wargaming is putting yourself in the shoes of the historical commander. Seeing it from his perspective and playing out the battle as you would have fought it. If you're being forced to play like George McClellan it takes away or reduces that aspect of the game.
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An almost impossible situation because we cannot have good historical knowledge of a battle and be unaware of vital events. The use of a random factor for reinforcements, troop quality etc can be easily implemented but then we start to move away from the "simulation" aspect of the game, which some may not like. To me Double Blind is the best way of utilising Fog of War.

There was a novel solution which I read about many years ago and was aimed at figure gamers. An umpire would find a famous battle in history, then collect all the necessary information regarding OB, terrain etc and then transport the whole scenario to a different time zone and area but within the same type of genre. eg Imagine taking the battle of the Bulge but then dressing it up with appropriate OB and presenting it as a fictional Cold War (WW3) situation. The players are not aware of the enemies OB but the game will start with a historical OB although in a different period.

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Pete Belli
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Great topic, and a fine presentation.

A few of the battles or campaigns that frequently depicted in wargames are also some of the most difficult subjects to develop into workable games.

Here is a partial list:

Leipzig
Gettysburg
Little Bighorn
France 1940
Midway
Ardennes

The problems have already been mentioned… if we’re playing a game about the battle of Gettysburg that begins on the evening of June 30th and both players know exactly when each brigade will arrive on the board and exactly which road each formation will march along as it enters the map, everything changes.

Stuff that could happen:

The designer could perform a bit of wargame legerdemain to inject fog-of-war into a conventional game system that does not use an umpire. Good luck with that, although block games with random events are a step in the right direction.

-or-

The players must adopt an almost child-like suspension of disbelief. When you saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time (and for me, it was on the big screen at the cinema, when it first appeared in the 1980s) you knew Indiana Jones wasn’t going to get crushed under that truck. It was still entertaining, though.

Now think back to your early days in the wargame hobby. You played badly flawed games and had a blast… otherwise you wouldn’t be here. It wasn’t until later that you realized the historical simulation had fallen by the wayside when your knowledge of the exact strength and arrival time of the Umpteenth Panzer Division allowed you to block the road from Geekwald at hex number 1234 on turn six.

As a game designer, I will continue to inject fog-of-war into my wargame prototypes as often as possible.

As a player, I’m still going to send Custer against that tribal village, and the Lakota will be waiting.


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Robert Stuart
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mrbeankc wrote:
Another example is Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863. The biggest factor in the meeting of Lee's forces with Meade at Gettysburg was Lee's lack of knowledge of the whereabouts of Meade's army. Lee had to quickly reform his army near Chambersburg when he discovered that the Army of the Potomac was much farther north than he expected resulting in Henry Heth being surprised when he suddenly ran into the I Corps in McPheason's Woods just west of Gettysburg.


This is what makes Bowen Simmons' most recent conception (with the game The Guns of Gettysburg) so brilliant. Although he doesn't simulate the strategic situation, by creating a variable entry schedule for Confederate and Union forces, and a consequent shift in the victory conditions, he simulates the accidental and unplanned nature of the clash.

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Jon Gautier

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mrbeankc wrote:
I've actually played Roads to Gettysburg and while it's an enjoyable game covering the campaign at an operational level it simply can't recreate the campaign because all units are visible to both players the entire time. It is literally impossible to recreate the Battle of Gettysburg as it played out in real life with that game simply because the fog of war factor is not there. Mind you this is one of the reasons block wargames are becoming more and more interesting to me.


Try it with Pat Hirtle's fog of war rules.
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Rob Arcangeli
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I can't imagine playing a game of the Battle of the Pyramids 1798 and it being any good!

I hope I am disproved however.
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mrbeankc wrote:
Unfortunately in a classic wargame style game double blind is rather unwieldy in and of itself. However I honestly can't think of any way you could truly simulate Lee's invasion on a campaign level otherwise. For that matter most parts of the American Civil War were like this. Grant was surprised at Shiloh, Lee at Gettysburg, Hooker at Chancellorsville. In all those battles the lack of knowledge of the enemy's units played a huge factor in the battles and it's really difficult to simulate that aspect of it.

In terms of command style that's another thing that you bring up. Part of the fun of wargaming is putting yourself in the shoes of the historical commander. Seeing it from his perspective and playing out the battle as you would have fought it. If you're being forced to play like George McClellan it takes away or reduces that aspect of the game.


In my own humble opinion the double-blind mechanic was successfully integrated in Avalon Hill's Flat Top. Granted the trust factor between players, and a uniform understanding of the rules was essential, but I have not played a better "fog of war" board game.

Computer simulations can capture this aspect of war, but I do not tend to enjoy this medium of gaming and have not tried any titles, though might reconsider if any software titles covering the American Civil War battles mentioned here in this thread were represented (and were any good).
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Interesting topic/post Brian. Pete named several of the "ungameable" battles. In Case Yellow, 1940: The German Blitzkrieg in the West (about France 1940), Ted Raicer has the historical scenario where things are quite scripted. The French and British have to rush to the Dyle. The Germans have to move down certain routes as well.

That seems to produce a historical-feeling France 1940, with victory based on how the two sides do relative to the real 1940.

BUT - in what I think is an interesting approach to an arguably ungameable situation - Raicer includes two other scenarios. One allows for a little bit more flexibility for the Allies. The other is essentially free, where a competent Ally player will probably not charge at the Dyle while German armor moves thru the "impassable" Ardennes...

But I think Pete raises an important point, about mindset. Fog of war rules can to some extent help to deal with the unknown, though not entirely. But it's difficult to design something to make a commander react like McClellan at Antietam, or on a larger scale, to do something that most World in Flames players running the Germans avoid, sending large forces to Norway and keeping them there until 1945.
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It would be hard to make a game about the battle of Gaugamela because it would be impossible for any player to make such stupid decisions as Darius III did.

Technically you can make a game about for example the first gulf war (I actually got one in a magazine once) where US is overwhelmingly dominant and your job as Iraqi-player to die at least a little bit slower than happened in real life. But it´s not very fun way of playing games:-)
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Wifwendell's example about case Yellow is not a bad way of tackling the problem for these battles that are hard to simulate. Have both a historical, scripted version and one with more freedom. I like that.

This way you can try to simply rerun the battle and follow more or less closely the historical events (it is always a problem when you can't get the historical outcome in a wargame) or let the player have more leeway and less constraints. Two games in one in a way.
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Jeff K
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pete belli wrote:

The problems have already been mentioned… if we’re playing a game about the battle of Gettysburg that begins on the evening of June 30th and both players know exactly when each brigade will arrive on the board and exactly which road each formation will march along as it enters the map, everything changes.

Stuff that could happen:

The designer could perform a bit of wargame legerdemain to inject fog-of-war into a conventional game system that does not use an umpire. Good luck with that, although block games with random events are a step in the right direction.


Wait for The Guns of Gettysburg and you will be amazed at how well this can work fro Gettysburg.
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Has anyone seen a game with a hidden or phantom unit system that ASL incorporates at levels above tactical?. ASL, for those who do not know, has a system with '?' counters that act just like real units until fired upon or within LOS of the enemy.

For the ACW for example, you would have real units with '?' on them and then a certain number of dummy stacks of '?' and until within LOS of each other all units act is if real and move in the same fashion. Not sure if at certain scales that would make for too many units, or how many dummy stacks to incorporate in a OOB, but I guess that could be playtested.

I know the GCACW has a fog of war variant that I've never really tried but have heard is pretty good.
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pete belli wrote:
Great topic, and a fine presentation.

A few of the battles or campaigns that frequently depicted in wargames are also some of the most difficult subjects to develop into workable two player games.


Is that what you meant to say?

Here's the classic solitaire game of the classic battle meant to be portrayed that way:

Iwo Jima: Valor of Arms, 19 Feb. – 25 March 1945
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While this game has been called unplayable among other things it isn't.
It is extremely complex but it does introduce a great deal of FoW.
And yes I have played the basic version, and the Advanced version. The Campaign version was where I had to draw the complexity line, to much for me!
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Robert Wilson
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Most battles can be made gameable and fun by good victory conditions
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dude163 wrote:
Most battles can be made gameable and fun by good victory conditions


Yes but if you completely disconnect from the historical situation (or a reasonable hypothetical), it isn't a good wargame. If the players have complete control of their forces and strategy plus the advantage of 100+ years of hindsight, it simply no longer resembles the history in a way that is interesting to many of us.

One solution is to have completely unknown OOBs for both sides, and victory conditions for each side dependent upon the OOB chosen (or randomly selected). I can't recall for sure but I think Victory at Midway had variable OOBs for each side, which is really the only way to capture the essence of the unknowns for each side at Midway. So in such a case you would not fight the historical battle , but you do recreate the historical quandaries, which is more the essence of wargaming (to me).
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I don't have any examples off the top of my head (I haven't had my tea yet) but how about battles where the battle hinged on an extremely improbable event, like a stray bullet killing a commander, or lost orders being found by the enemy?
I think most designers would want their game to return a historical result at least some of the time, but doesn't that really skew the probabilities, if the historical result is a long-shot fluke?
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aiabx wrote:
I don't have any examples off the top of my head (I haven't had my tea yet) but how about battles where the battle hinged on an extremely improbable event, like a stray bullet killing a commander, or lost orders being found by the enemy?
I think most designers would want their game to return a historical result at least some of the time, but doesn't that really skew the probabilities, if the historical result is a long-shot fluke?


Your post just reminded me of a game of Ancients II I played recently. It was the Battle of Hastings scenario which has no special rules attached to it at all, just the standard system.

The battle was decided when a lucky shot from the Norman crossbows killed the Anglo-Saxon commander and the Anglo-Saxon line had begun to become fragmented with a few ill-advised and unintended pursuits from the less disciplined troops and let themselves be flanked and destroyed.

Sometimes history does just play itself out!
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Edward Kendrick
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Scoobysnacks wrote:
Has anyone seen a game with a hidden or phantom unit system that ASL incorporates at levels above tactical?. ASL, for those who do not know, has a system with '?' counters that act just like real units until fired upon or within LOS of the enemy.


Plenty of block games have dummy blocks for just this purpose. Examples would be Quebec 1759 at the regiment/battalion level and Europe Engulfed at the army(ish) level, although in the latter the FoW comes from not knowing the strength of the units (typically between 1 and 4) rather than their being complete dummies.
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Good idea for a thread. Many of the most famous battles are 'ungameable' if we expect the game to resemble history. But still, there are many games on these very battles.

Austerlitz was a good example. Napoleon considered the battle won before the first shot was fired. How to simulate that?

Waterloo. I mentioned in the other thread that a French player will never start with an assault on Hougoumont.

Eylau. Unless there is a blizzard going on in the game room, not likely the French player will send Augereau's corps against a solid line of Russian cannon.

Friedland. Why would the Russian player not just quickly skedaddle back across the Alle River?

Antietam has already been mentioned. What game on the subject doesn't include some sort of 'McClellan was an idiot' rule?

Chickamauga. What Union player will pull Wood's division out of the line just as Longstreet is preparing to attack that very spot?

Gettysburg. Will the Union player hold onto McPherson's Ridge as if it were sacred ground and push the XI corps far north of the town on the first day?

Chancellorsville. Totally ungameable except as a scenario. Unless you hit the Union player over the head with a piece of lumber as happened to Hooker.

That is just to name a few; the list goes on and on. Hindsight does make it impossible to replicate many battles as they actually occurred. But is that what we really want to do?

The old AH game France 1940 included a scenario that forced the Allied player to replicate the historical moves exactly as they occurred. It was neat seeing how it all happened. But I doubt if anyone ever played that scenario twice. It wasn’t even fun for the German player. Our definition of Heaven would be to play wargames day after day. Our definition of Hell would be playing a scenario like that day after day.

Double blind games were mentioned and a few have been done but I don't believe they were very popular. I suppose too many games are played solo. I imagine the only way to make these battles gameable is to fudge the victory conditions. But I’m not sure how effective that is either. Who are we kidding then?

Myself, I have much less problem with a strategic game like The Civil War looking non-historical while I'm playing. I suppose because it is zoomed out as opposed to a battle game that is zoomed in. I don’t expect a game that covers four years to slavishly reproduce historical results.

But games on these ‘ungameable’ battles will continue to be produced and we as gamers will continue to buy them. Hope springs eternal that someone will figure out how to make the ungameable gameable.
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Andy Beaton
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IIRC, someone in a previous thread mentioned a Fall of France game where the German player had a choice of victory conditions - capturing Paris, destroy the BEF, capture Atlantic ports and a few others. But according to the victory conditions chosen, the historical Allied actions could suddenly turn out to be very clever indeed; the problem is trying to predict what the Germans want and react appropriately. (And of course, work around the terrible Allied command and control).
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As an "out there" solution to simulate rash decisions of history and the pressure of being in the heat of battle perhaps players should have to drink a few pints before playing.

Suddenly a charge across a corn field doesn't seem that bad an idea...

(Feel free to ignore this! Just an idea!)
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Andrew Franke
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I find most battles to be difficult to recreate in a traditional hex and counter simulation style boardgame. However...There are things that can be done as the OP mentioned about the McClellan rule.

I prefer campaign style games like the Clash of Arms Series with Summer Storm.
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