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.

Open Vassal Playtest, this Sunday 2000 UTC

Obligatory tactic-y image.
Obligatory tactic-y image.

At 2000 UTC, Sunday, 19 November, I’ll be conducting a live, drop-in playtest of a small, learning scenario for my game Band of Brothers: From the Ground Up. Download the VASSAL module and meet me on the server at 2000 UTC (1500 EST, 1400 CST). Just open the module in VASSAL and hit the server connect button at the upper right and voilà. Voice comms will be via Skype (neal.durando). I’ll teach the rules, but if you want to read them, they’re in the package.

Sèves Learning Scenario

An intervisibility puzzle. Germans must not allow themselves to be flanked.
An intervisibility puzzle. Germans must not allow themselves to be flanked.

Here’s the third installment. One more to go. Pushed the counters around once, upped the US and dinged the Germans. The situation is 22 July 1944. After a hard day of fighting to gain less than a kilometer, 1- and 2/358 try to integrate their lines. The scenario is here and you can right click to download the VASSAL module.

It will be important to consider flanking, mines, crossfires, and dusk. I think this will be a fine illustration of how closely fought engagements in bocage country really were. Here’s a draft crossfire rule. I already see that the cases of 180° hex spines already need to be added.

Optional base game rule 3: Flanks are alway in effect in FTGU. If a player makes two consecutive direct fire attacks in the same impulse at normal range against the same infantry target across two non-connected hex sides, place a flank marker on the target unit. Note: a vertex is not considered part of the hex side. In addition to the usual negative effect for melee, the infantry unit under a flank marker now tests morale at -1. Remove the marker in the Recovery Phase.

Cases A, B, and C from left to right. Yes, I’m aware there’s an error in the graphic.



Hmm. This looks familiar.
Hmm. This looks familiar. And, yes, I know it is impossible to stack all the German units on the starting hexes.

The next installment in the short learning scenarios I’m writing for each map. Okay, I’m getting a little slap happy here. Even so, this situation will familiarize players with SATWs, night, paved roads, and my simple turreted vehicle rule. Which reads:

5.3.3 Turreted Vehicles
Vehicle units with a colored or white ring around the vehicle depiction may choose to fire outside of their front firing arc without changing the orientation of the vehicle. This is important in terrain which restricts movement, such as narrow or sunken roads, or where the player chooses to avoid the risk of vehicle bogging.
( Firing out of the front firing arc always requires a proficiency roll, even at ranges under 5 hexes. Fire outside of the front firing arc suffers the usual -1 for turning to fire applies and anti-personnel firepower is reduced by 2.

I doubt I’m really going to playtest this. Well, I might do it if someone requested to play it live via VASSAL. Drop me a line if you want to read the module rulebook. You can have a look at the scenario here and right click to download the VASSAL file here.

Splendor vs Elegance

I think the following falls within one standard deviation of reality. What about you?

Jim Krohn’s lucid designer notes from the first game in the series are tonic against the rules creep one finds in other tactical systems which, considering historical realities, do not hesitate to color outside previously established lines. ASL and ATS invent new systems for new situations; they do not address these needs in terms of existing rules opting for a maximalist approach. They take a stab at splendor at the cost of adding distinct procedures, rather than taking an exacting look at previous rules and grinding out some elegance. Elegant rules are brief. They are also easy to internalize. Consider, for example, the ease with which a contemporary “no lookup” system like BoB or LnL conduct infantry fire with respect to ASL, ATS, Panzer, TCS, et al. Enough about that. The base game, Band of Brothers, sensibly avoids the complexities of separate locations within a hex.

One of the AOs in From the Ground Up features an important fire lane that the Germans identified and exploited, impacting the subsequent battle in a decisive fashion. They did so with machine guns placed at elevation in buildings. My cartography is accurate enough to show the same fire lane, but no such line of fire could exist at the base elevation. BoB doesn’t accommodate upper levels, wisely foregoing the rules bloat in-hex locations entail. The historical record even bears out this choice — I’ve seen little US tactical doctrine of the era that supports exploitation of upper levels at assault ranges. (Even though there is plenty of documentation of doing so in tactical practice.) Additionally, the historical record of the battle in question includes an explicit order to avoid using buildings for defense to limit post-combat damage claims by civilians.

Most Second World War tactical designs still echo John Hill’s Stalingrad. From what I’ve read of tactical doctrine and combat reports, in a fluid battle (not Stalingrad) it was rare that a squad would place itself in an upper level if area security was not secured. Weapons companies often set up in good supporting positions, but this is usually well outside danger close range for artillery (~500 yards), mostly outside of BoB’s scale. It was Squad Leader (SL), in its first scenario that encouraged the multi-locational aspect of hexes. The first SL scenario actually proposes a quantum state for units in buildings: they may both fire and be fired upon as if occupying upper and lower levels simultaneously. The interchangeability won’t work for a protracted battle. Here’s what I came up with:

An MG WT (only) may count the base elevation of its line of sight as including that of the building for infantry fire attacks (only) if another squad, unrevealed decoy, or WT accompanies it in the same hex. Place the MG WT on top of the two-unit stack to signify that it is upstairs. So long as the MG WT has a squad beneath it to ensure area security, the MG WT may now fire as if were at an elevation equal to the base elevation plus the obstacle elevation. Signify an MG WT is downstairs by placing it underneath an accompanying squad. MG WTs without an accompanying squad may not benefit from being upstairs. Melee against the hex is conducted normally.

The upstairs MG in M12 may fire on A as its level (base elevation 16 + obstacle height 2 = 18) is superior to the intervening garden hexes; the squad on the bottom level may not trace LOS across two garden hexes. The MG (level 18) is superior to the intervening elevation 16 hex in M11 to fire on B, although fire would still be modified for the bocage; the squad may not see it at all, as it does not enjoy superior elevation to all intervening hexes. Similarly, the squad may not fire on C as the same hex cannot be seen over. However, the bocage, (level 17; elevation 14 + 3 obstacle height) creates two blind hexes behind it, one of which is cancelled because it is a hexside obstacle. The MG could fire into N8 with the bocage modification but N7 is a blind hex.

There is a bit of a problem with this that I’ll address in a subsequent post. Perhaps live playtesting will tease it out.


Small is Beautiful

US sets up within two hexes of crossroads.
US sets up within two hexes of crossroads.

I intend to write a small, learning scenario for each map. Here’s my entry for Beau Coudray. Call it “American Patrol“. This is a completely theoretical action, but something like it probably occurred. While waiting for the inevitable German counter attack, a US patrol is sent out to locate an enemy position hampering the progress of the adjacent company.

Meant as an easy tool to learn the basic flow of a Band of Brothers turn and familiarize the players with the terrain, here the US player will have to intelligently maneuver around any trap the German might set, as well as play through the intervisibility requirement set upon US second line units. This is completely untested. So now is your chance.

I will be up on the VASSAL server at 2000 hours, GMT this evening (5 November). You have only to install the program (vassal.org) and download the FTGU module here.

Scenario Design, Armored Feint, finis

So, after another play through I added a 2nd line MG42 team to the German setup pool, mostly because it was a very likely historical deployment. I’ve played through this three times now and I don’t see anything else obvious to take care of. Slowly, I’m learning not to overwork scenario designs, as different playstyles are essential for new perspectives.

I’ve tried full, medium, and minimal initial draws for the Germans. Each present different challenges for the US force. There is some advantage in feeding the fight as it develops and choosing the lane for your reinforcements. But, heck, it’s possible I’m overlooking something.

Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.
Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.

I like how the tank-infantry coordination rule cleaned up. Its easier to remember and makes for some interesting maneuver problems. Was gratified to find the Turreted Vehicles rule I wrote didn’t require refining. I’d forgotten whether I’d reduced firepower for tanks which do not change their facing to target. A vehicle counter with a turret ring may engage targets to its sides and flanks without changing orientation but suffers -2 to its firepower. While I respect the logic of the basic game, new terrain in FTGU cries out for some nuance here. I think mine is an acceptable compromise. All the counters in the module are marked accordingly.

Now I leave it up to you. Comment here or email me should you be interested in testing this or other parts of the module. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a physical playtest kit, but one can be printed (complete with counters) at reasonable cost. However, I’ll be updating the VASSAL module in the next few days and, of course, it will be available for free.

Here’s the finished (for now) product.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design Part VIII

Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.
Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.

Hot washup after a few play throughs:

A. System Rule Change:

After a phase in which a vehicle moves or fires, no infantry or WT may move;

Will become:

Either tanks or infantry may move in the same player activation, but not both.

The original rule allows an unrealistic level of coordination. And I have evidence that 90ID did not undergo tank-infantry team training until the seizure of Gorges, just before their action at Sèves.

B. Scenario Changes

  1. The Mk IV, artillery mission, and elite infantry can only be drawn as reinforcements. A German player may opt to begin with no VP differential and have his complete force. Of course, this will mean less uncertainty for the US, who will only have to find a few real units and kill them to win. This may favor the German too strongly; this is a question for playtester.
  2. The US player gains 5 VP for each unoccupied building at the end of turn 5. This places a premium on pressuring the US flanks as well as making reinforcement draws potentially costly.
  3. German player must decide how many counters to draw before looking at any of them. While I like the granularity of looking at each as it’s drawn, I’m going to shelve the idea for another scenario. Germans are already sufficiently advantaged by the steep terrain and bocage.

C. Remaining Design/Balance Challenges
(Keeping in mind, on the historicity-balance spectrum, the former is more important to me.)

  1. The 105 artillery mission is potentially unbalancing, although its eventuality is somewhat ameliorated by having the players switch sides after turn 5. In Normandy, the Germans typically fired artillery in battalion, rather than battery missions to avoid the very good US counterbattery fire. I feel like I have to include at least its possibility, as this, and the advancing darkness, brought the US mission to a close. Additionally, it would be a relatively economical means to responding to a threat on a crossroads, which were likely preregistered. Very easy to imagine the German regimental commander (1050/77) dedicating a mission to disrupt a potential attack upon report of US armor.
  2. US forces. I’ve considered adding a fourth, first-line, reduced, US squad. My standard for FTGU’s cartography and rules is to try and get at least one standard deviation within history. The reason why I responded to BoB’s base design is that it seems to acknowledge that successful designs understand these limitations and doesn’t go chasing rabbits into a warren of special rules for special circumstances. Middleton is very explicit in his account that it was three teams of five men who attacked the crossroads. He specifies that it was the first sergeant who led the attack. It seems safe to assume that the 1SGT chose his men from the best remaining in the company, which was at least 30% understrength. Middleton is extremely detail oriented with a good memory, just like an excellent NCO. (Four years later, he can list exactly how much ammo he was carrying, certainly the product of a precisely calibrated order.) In short, it is easy to imagine he was one of the best soldiers in his company. Adding another maneuver element to counteract the increased difficulty of the terrain certainly seems within keeping to the one-deviation limit.


Armored Feint, Scenario Design, Part VII

Turn 2 opens with a nice US play on the German right.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of this test, but I wanted to illustrate a few of the modifications I’ve made in the BoB base system for From the Ground Up.

Here, the US begins with his infantry movement. He makes his activation roll, takes a big risk, moving D4 past the dummy at G6 and H6. (Easy to do when you are soloing and you know they are dummies!) The German, hoping to withdraw yet again, holds fire. He then loses concealment due to being adjacent. Since all FTGU scenario assume use of the flank rules, the German is obliged to select an orientation, turning the unit to vertex 1 to cancel the eventual FP bonus the Assault firing US unit would otherwise enjoy. US fire causes a level of suppression. The German isn’t sweating this yet, as he plans to make a declared withdraw during his phase.

The US moves a squad out of E3, through the orchard and along the bocage. He is now in the German flank. The German would still rather withdraw as his shot (should he make his proficiency roll) would change his orientation. It goes without saying that there are also tanks nearby and it would be nice to get in a panzerfaust shot, however unlikely that may be. So the US moves adjacent and stops. Both sides now enjoy the bocage bonus, although they are adjacent. The US assault fire does not result in increased suppression but it does cause placement of a flanked marker, which in FTGU is the result of fire attacks from non-adjacent hexsides (side 2 and 6) conducted over consecutive impulses. The German, at this point, is stuck with a -1 morale for being flanked, counted against his yellow morale of 5. He has an 80% chance of being able to withdraw from this position (yellow morale 5; + 4 declared withdrawal; -1 flanked).

The tank in D6 flips to its nonmoving side, fires, increasing the German’s suppression level to red, thus halving his chances of making a successful withdrawal.

My draft rule for tank-infantry coordination prohibited vehicle and foot movement in the same phase. I backed off, opting instead obliging that a turn end upon vehicle activation. The rule needs a bit more testing. Honestly, I feel a bit bad about the ease with which this play came together and wonder if the more janky rhythm imposed by the original rule wouldn’t better serve. A situation where it wouldn’t be more advisable to move your infantry first is difficult to imagine. But so far, the running and gunning seems to square with Middleton’s account.

I’ll play through a few more turn before posting again. My instinct is that the Germans might want to spend a VP or two to make draws from the reinforcement pool in hopes of coming up with the Mark IV. I think, also, for historical reasons, I’m going to include an artillery battery in the pool.