On Killing: Getting beyond One Step, One Hex

It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.
It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.

Here’s a partial response to Lewis Pulsipher, designer of Dragon Rage and Doomstar, about dicey wargames and deterministic euros. Occasionally Mr. Pulsipher floats a taxonomy he is considering to see what it provokes. Mr. Pulsipher associated dice and wargames with an historical approach, an association which I challenged, citing the necessity for designers of professional wargames to hide coarse-grained (non digital) randomization from military clients who really don’t appreciate it. You gotta pocket your dice if you want credibility with some soldiers. There is a huge reluctance to be seen taking chances in armed conflict. I’ve witnessed this myself. Leadership means certitude. Dice are the physical manifestation of incertitude. Better not to touch them.

As for wargamers, they only think they want control — what they really want is plausible rationalizations for failure at the right moments. A lot of so-called serious gamers are completely full of shit and need to be called on it. Not necessarily a winning commercial strategy, I’ll grant you. I’ve talked this over and over with every designer and player I respect and who will give me the time of day. After I finish my big project [FTGU] (which is deterministic move/randomized combat and a good system designed by Jim Krohn) I want to do a grand tactical system that I’ve outlined called “Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box”. My idea is to allow everything to be deterministic to better get at the differences in the fluidity of operational rhythm by emphasizing time and attrition effects. A “move” will include maneuver and combat in the same go. The objective is to create a game I could use for a staff ride and resolve in an hour or so, reliably evoking C2 and terrain challenges.

To which Mr. Pulsipher reasonably responded:

If they want rationalization for failure, surely they prefer games with uncertainty, not games where they feel in control (and consequently have to blame themselves, in two-player).

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. That’s my take on wargamer psychology, anyway. And why I responded to the initial post so enthusiastically. I think the most psychologically desirable outcome on a classic CRT is a “Defender loses one step and retreats one hex.” Resolution systems which deliver too many outliers too frequently beyond this outcome raise hackles. Everybody thinks they’re awesome at probabilistic analysis even though research shows otherwise– which is certainly true in the heat of the moment. This human weakness seems absolutely true considering historical contexts for warfare.

A little about humanity. In sports like tennis and fencing it has often been remarked that the most successful contestants will despatch the adversary without a second thought, something that most people — even good players — naturally hesitate to do. A winning mindset demands that sympathy be the opponent on the other side of the net more deserving of annihilation. Hence my notion that one step, one hex is the outcome that both attacker and defender find easiest to accept. This is the psychological norm for an attack on a given position. This psychological subtext demands that an attack, which is a rational, calculated decision — better that it have some effect, after all — but the attacker’s humanity in turn depends on sparing the defender’s ego. Or honor or whatever. The dice are there to take the heat for outliers to this yearned for outcome. They spare players’ humanity. Gamers of any sort don’t suffer violence to this notion well.

Game Design, Ur-Texts I

Play is disinterested: Not being “ordinary” life it stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process.  It interprets itself as a temporary activity satisfying tin itself and ending there.  The purposes it serves are external to immediate material interests or the individual satisfaction of biological needs.

Quick post while waiting for QGIS to reinstall. There is so much that could be said about Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. I was first interested in this study of play in the context of why and how to write. It is Nelson Goodman- or even William Empson-level useful.

The book has also guided my teaching, especially when teaching with games. As a phenomenological description of what goes on in open-ended, adversarial situations, I can’t think of a better text. Every game designer should know this book.

It is heavy-ish sledding but is wonderfully concise. You could read the whole text. Or you could take in the outline I wrote way back sometime in the mid 1990s.

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.

Grounding the Truth

A guest post from developer Brendan Clark!

Florent, left, and our stealthy guide, with the wrecked barn behind them. I never got round to asking Neal why he wore that red baseball cap.
That is hex E28 for those keeping score at home.
That is hex E28 for those keeping score at home.

With Amfreville to our rear, we turned off the road and clambered over a low gate into the undergrowth that surrounded a battered wreck of a stone barn. 72 years ago to the day and that same building had been ablaze. As a US infantry company had advanced across the field behind German munitions had erupted inside, ejecting chunks of rubble, one of which struck a young US soldier in the back, killing him instantly.

For us, this was no casual country walk. We were about to go on a methodically planned trek into the history of four battles fought in the Normandy countryside by the US 90th Infantry Division over the summer of 1944. Kitted out with our backpacks, our camouflage and boots, we began our venture onto much private property, the fields, tracks, and woods surrounding Norman villages that were the focus of conflict. We came armed with curiosity, purpose and the knowledge of our guide-cartographer. We needed all three.

On into stinging nettles and brambles growing two metres high, over jagged, skin-ripping barbed wire fences, and into deep, dark woods, we followed our guide. He knew the ground and the history it continued to hold. Moreover, he knew the US 90 ID, where its battalions had set down their command posts, start lines, their axes and limits of advance. Here was where a colonel had been ambushed in the road as he directed his jeep driver to reverse back to US lines. Along an axis we walked, ‘Hanging Sam Williams’ had led an attack that flanked the German main line and cut down south into the village of Gourbesville. As we walked, he talked. It was like stepping forward into immersion.

I had never, ever been here before. Yet I knew the terrain, not so intimately as our guide, but I recognised the patchwork of buildings, bocage and roads. Without looking at a map, I knew from my time in ‘command’ that on the other side of a bocage hedgerow, the ground sloped down to a small tree-lined stream, crossed by a narrow bridge, which carried a road on into the village beyond. We had come with well-prepared maps and lists of GPS plotted ‘points of interest’, locations marked for us to verify as part of what our guide called ‘Ground Truthing’. In laymen’s terms, walking the ground to test the accuracy of your map, its height elevations, location of terrain features such as buildings and hedgerows, and – critically – lines of sight.

But the maps we were really there to ‘Ground Truth’ were Neal Durando’s own hex-grid maps, the ones he’d created from NASA’s shuttle images, or SRTM data, aerial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance pilots in 1944, and subsequent ones taken in 1947 by the Istitut national géographique, the French equivalent of the USGS or the British Ordnance Survey. Altogether Neal had crafted four battle site maps – Gourbesville, Sèves Island, Beau Coudray, and Le Bourg St Leonard – for his ‘Band of Brothers’ tactical WWII historical module. These four maps form the backdrop for a narrative of how the US 90 ID fought its way across parts of Normandy, an arduous and bloody journey that saw it move up from a second-rate infantry division to a battle-hardened veteran formation as the campaign came to a close in August 1944.

I’m no veteran, but I had already fought over three of Neal’s battle maps as I’d helped playtest his historical game module, ‘From the Ground Up’. And this was why I recognised the ground over which we walked. More than that, our treks through the close and sometimes confusing Normandy countryside gave me the chance to answer for myself the inevitable tactical game questions on lines of a sight (LOS). Sceptical I am by nature, but every question I’d had about LOS on Neal’s maps only confirmed that he’d got it right, every damn time. So walk if you really want to check that your maps are telling the truth.