Next War: Lebanon; Topological Differences

Next, some impressions of playing Next War: Lebanon, the Decision Games’s version of 3LW, published in Modern Warfare, issue 13

Starting a magazine game by first having to overlook rules ambiguities is both familiar and annoying. I have no nostalgia for the feeling. Before getting to the confusing cross references, rendered incoherent by subsequent revisions (there are no “Disrupted” markers in NWL; setup instructions can’t be executed with provided counter mix), you have to get past the map. For some mysterious reason a hex grid has been imposed over the terrain. Since I’m a cartographer by trade, I must remark the topology between the two versions is different. True, wargames often succeed or fail by close attention to such detail, but the game-stopping problem is the ambiguity of Israel’s depiction. There is no differentiation, as there is in 3LW, with Israel’s reserve area or between named border areas.

Relative topologies with the number of paths to and from each node. 3LW (left) NWL (right). While it is still three spaces to Tyre, the Shaqra area and Tyre itself are richer nodes, favoring the defender by making freedom of movement harder to control. Similar constraining/expanding effects can be seen in northern Lebanon and along the Syrian border.

 

 

The internationally recognized border, so visible on the 3LW map is completely absent on the NWL one. This doesn’t seem like an improvement on the original and has caused experienced wargamers to reject playing it out of hand. So, on balance, pleasing readership with a cosmetic and unnecessary hex grid doesn’t seem like much of a win. A more careful development of the original map would have been to make the line of the Litani river explicit, adding a few cosmetic touches (with no game effect) to edify the reader.

I think I can anticipate a commercial logic behind the hex grid – a gridded map is what wargamers expect to see. Yet why use it and then have an undivided Syria, an ambiguously divided Israel, featuring both hexes on the regular grid, an attached ambiguous space, and two place names labelling a contiguous space? This is just the first of trivial seeming changes which, in the ensemble, weaken the story the designer was trying to tell.

If changes like the hex grid are so trivial, why make them in the first place? Especially if they come at cost of introducing confusion that did not exist before?

 

Two Depictions of Military Geography of Southern Lebanon

Schematic of military geography in 3LW and the older Lebanon ’82. The same area is depicted with the summary effect for combat in similar sectors. What a difference a basic assumption can make!

 

I’ve been working rather hard on an article about game development, particularly magazine game development, for a good while now, taking Brian Train’s Third Lebanon War and Decision Games’s Next War: Lebanon as an occasion.  I won’t belabor you with a quote before I’ve rendered my work a little more coherent. The above image compares 3LW to a third, much more traditional hex-and-counter game. The article is meant to be an appeal to improve games criticism  such that the coherence of the geographies (and many other aspects) are more seriously treated analysed. I suppose the public for this is rather small–and even within that tiny arena this would probably be considered pedantic. But the geographer and cartographer in me can’t be kept down.

I’m also working just about as hard on a chapter for Chris Engle’s upcoming book on matrix games. Both of these are going to take me into January before revisions are finished. I’ll get back to posting on FTGU design soon thereafter. Remember to drop me a message if you’re going to be in North Texas over the holiday season. I’ll be travelling with an FTGU counterset. Watch this space.

Dice for Specific Purposes

March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.
March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.

When I return to Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box (9RHiaB), sometime in Spring of 2017, I want to keep in mind dice for specific purposes (DSPs?). The example above is taken from Joseph Miranda’s Trajan: Ancient Wars. I made it from an 18mm blank wooden die and sharpie markers. TAW, like so many of Decision Games’s offerings is an ergonomic nightmare. The layout looks more like a rough draft. When tables arise in play it is always a jolly ol’ fox hunt.

A player:

  1. Declares a march after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Checks the terrain table;
  3. Rolls a d6;
  4. Hunts for the movement table (on a bi-fold where the theme is vaguely logistical);
  5. Finds the result line;
  6. Consults the code;
  7. Looks back to the map;
  8. Moves.

My die above seems complex. In practice, using it increases the enjoyment of the game. The two terrestrial modes of movement are in black. The two amphibious ones are in green (river) because rivers are green and blue (sea) because this is the Mediterranean we’re playing in and the Med is always blue. Yeah, you still have to look up the effects, but the die rewards you for memorizing them by increasing enjoyment of the game. Learning the effects makes you a better player, too. Don’t be the kind of player who has to look up to a chart and then look up to a definition and then to the rulebook; everybody just tolerates that guy.

A high-speed player of TAW:

  1. Declares he is marching after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Rolls the die;
  3. Moves.

Not only does this save five steps, the player barely takes his eyes off the game. Go listen to chess grandmasters hash out championship conditions sometime if you think visual ergonomics is a minor factor. Fortunately, wargamers are more agreeable pedants. Mostly. The ones I know love to constantly teach each other the game. Game calculations are performed in an incantatory murmur as a courtesy to their opponents and because they like to get things right. If this isn’t the case for you, either you play with brigands or wargames aren’t for you.

The gaming public whines for dice to be included in games. The gaming public, such as it is, needs to cowboy up and make simple components that increase enjoyment of the game. Dice like mine increase concision in rulebooks and player aids. They cut down on copyediting churn and lower errors. Part of good design is doing everything you can to increase your game’s enjoyment — words I’m certain to eat down the line. But I believe them right now. I’m not alone in this. Naw, naw. Command and Colors anyone? Anything by Fantasy flight? And these guys get it in a big way.

Here’s a picture of the discipline die [!] I made and the table it demolishes:

Discipline Table TAW
Column two. Black is “Imperator” because black is bad ass. Blue is veteran because blue is the color of US infantry. Green is green because it is green. Red is the color of rabble. Red underscored is Conan with red nails and veins in his teeth. Everyone needs a system and that is mine.

B coy CP, Le Bourg St. Leonard

Who wouldn't want to drive tanks around in such constricted terrain?
Who wouldn’t want to drive tanks around in such constricted terrain?

Here’s my rendering of the old center of Le Bourg St. Léonard. More than with the other maps I’ve had to commit some sins of scale and, for playability’s sake, sacrifice outbuildings (hence the gardens). M15 is B/359’s CP 15/16 August 1944. I’ve written the observation post rules to be very simple. If you can occupy M15 or keep a unit adjacent to it, you may observe artillery to the range printed on the map. (Twenty hexes in this case.) No, you needn’t calculate LOS, as the fall of shot can be observed from shell bursts, the height of which are sometimes materialized in other tactical systems. However, LOS may be traced only through the indicated (yellow) hexsides.

These hexes are something regimental and battalion commanders worried about historically. They do not serve as likely spots for installing ASL-like “death stars”. This impacts game play quite a bit, especially in built-up terrain. I can find no doctrinal guidance about using buildings as cover. During this battle, US corps command prohibited deployment in buildings out of CIMIC concerns. 359IR’s executive officer, who wrote the best account of combat here, explicitly mentions the advisability of doing so in his lessons learned paragraph. However, it is just as easy to find anecdotes of more experienced troops (75th Rangers in the Hurtgen Forest, for example) preferring to defend built-up areas from newly-dug foxholes with trenches communicating to buildings.

Former town hall (marked "Mairie" on the game map), Brendan Clark, bottom left. Note bullet scarring still visible on its façade.
Former town hall (marked “Mairie” on the game map), Brendan Clark, bottom left. Note bullet scarring still visible on its façade.
Vic. hex P15. Note the density of buildings and the narrow streets. 359IR's XO CPT Hickman reported tank engagements taking place at 40 yards here.
Vic. hex P15. Note the density of buildings and the narrow streets. 359IR’s XO CPT Hickman reported tank engagements taking place at 40 yards here.

Gourbesville Final for Playtest

Les Surelles on the Gourbesville map, the site of my interview with Mr. Levavasseur this past June.
Les Surelles on the Gourbesville map, the site of my interview with Mr. Levavasseur this past June. Notice the OP symbol with an observation range of 10. Nothing really to remember or go back to the rule book here: there’s complete intervisibility for artillery observation out to ten hexes. Rest easy. Put the LOS string down. And, yep, those green elevation bars in Y27 are indeed an error!

Well, that took a lot longer than I thought it would. Here’s the new style. Not so much different from the old one, I admit. I tried to bring out the visual density of the bocage a bit more. I’m really not that far out of scale and, as the rules convention blocks LOS traced along a hexspine it should have minimal effect. An important revision was normalizing the elevation bars above the center dot. Now one level equals one bar. A chevron equals five levels. The center dot hindrance/blocking scheme is now coherent. Lower contour elevations were simplified after a second or third ground truthing. Presumably the differences owed to artifacts in the SRTM data which often occur in low-slope areas. I had hoped to use ASTER data to correct, but the effect is even worse!

Sèves, as I posted before, had to be completely redrawn due to a research error, but is mostly finished. St. Leonard will require some squinting at and a final consultation with a local historian. Beau Coudray requires nothing much, especially as I’ve simplified the OP rule: an OP will have a range number associated to it. Anywhere within that range is observable for artillery fire (in both directions). Simple. Done. Now for some fumbling in the VASSAL module, which I hope will not be too fiddly….

Les Surelles farm. Looking into the courtyard from the road.
Les Surelles farm. Looking into the courtyard from the road, vic. hex Z27.

One Klick Out of Whack

Current game map projected upon aerial photograph. The red box to be covered in the revision.
Current game map projected upon aerial photograph. The red box to be covered in the revision.

Ely’s maps are off. My vision came from them and from eyewitness accounts. I have the usual photographs from 1947. I have an overlay, but that just gave me the battalion boundaries. I visited the ground in 2013. I talked with Henri Levaufre. I read a few accounts. Sèves was not a victory nor was it a defeat that merited analysis, for whatever reason.

My first map was of 1/358’s AO. There is so little history to support it. There was a house that burned. And a veteran who remembered it. Henri Levaufre thought the man was at the limit of of first battalion’s advance. I couldn’t find anything in the archive. Henri’s own maps were vague. The land there is private from the Sèves side.

Ely’s maps are off in a funny way. They are of second battalion’s area, the river, the ford, the farm, and a few hedgerows beyond. The surrender site is on them. I thought I understood where that was in 2013. Ely’s distances are deeper than they should have been. Perhaps because the ground was so hard to take the distances seem longer to those who were there. I couldn’t fit their accounts to the ground. What you need is an officer who had a recent look at a map. But whatever notions that officer might have had don’t seem to have survived whatever happened next. The big picture got torn up or is still resting is some drawer in Maryland.

Henri shared some parts of it with me. The overlays, his own cartography. The intelligence overlay shows German antitank defenses oriented on the ford. To cross it at least two guns must have been destroyed. Every American accounts says a marsh. There is no notion of an armored assault. But there is talk of the river’s rise, of swimming in the dark under fire. Henri has mapped this ground for more than forty years. And Henri has never seen the Sèves rise more than twenty centimeters. Second battalion’s commander surrendered. Memories are more precise wherever objectives are achieved. He showed us his notes on which positions he assumed were American, which where German, and which were shared over the course of the two days. You get a sense for maximum advances, but not who was where when. We began our walk on the other side, in first battalion’s area. It is not a marsh. The ground is solid and stable. As is the gravel in the streambed. There are no steep-grade transitions up the far bank. It is the same story on the other side, in second battalion’s area. I have no record of 712th Tank Battalion conducting any route reconnaissance. The Germans defenses were correctly deployed, though they were a surprise to me.

But my initial map is nearly one klick out of whack. The ford was obviously not the only way across, or even the main one. The sedimentary profile was just better. No further information came out on first battalion’s fight. One day, I’ll come across the field order, the operational overlays. It is hard to see what the US was trying to achieve. I want this to be a good game, to highlight what I think is most important. The record speaks of failure in shifty ways. It often uses passive voice to better inter those presumed guilty. The winners are given greater agency. That alone is the definition of victory in linguistic terms, come to think of it. Bad things just happen at random in other accounts, like these, at Sèves. Anyway, a complete redraw is in order.

FTGU Counter Design

From the Ground Up Rules 16JAN2016.docx
Squad and vehicle counter design for FTGU.
pic1825568_md
BoB:GP counters
Early counter comp
Early playtest counter

Laurent Closier leaned over my playtest table at Atlantikon, Nantes 2015, took in my NATO symbol counters for FTGU, and remarked,Mais les pions de tout les jeux tactiques ont besion des petit bonhommes.” Outrages to wargame tradition come across so well in French that I could only agree. So I redid them with silhouettes, which you see above.

I chose to make 5/8ths of an inch counters this time, as it allows the hex number, which contains elevation information, to be more visible. In any case terrain is meant to be the star of this design so I want it to be more visible. And 5/8th-inch counters will be more cost effective, given the number of new units and all the second-line US units necessary to play the campaign game.

Terrain and tradition had to be satisfied. I also took the opportunity to change the basic design a bit. The smaller counter size meant that I had to dispense with a full-color treatment of the silhouettes. I did away with the watermark behind the silhouettes as well, instead relying on the background color to convey nationality. Additionally, I’ve relied on placement to convey the morale and firepower series as well as the range number, thus eliminating further watermarks which are ultimately a distraction.

I’ve done away with the casualty number series, instead relying on the number of silhouettes to convey the first casualty number while leaving the second one in red. This compromise was to free up space for the NATO symbol, the SATW symbol and number, and a unit ID number. I was briefly tempted to play with different colored numerals beyond the morale series, but these were distracting, too. Red and black read better than anything else, given the smaller counter size.