Third War Lebanon/Next War: Lebanon, a case study in game development

The print-and-play version of Third Lebanon War, BTR Games


Game development is one of those things you recognize when you see it. Yet, absence of development is a portmanteau upon which a reviewer might hang any sort of criticism without going into too much depth. I’ve always found this unsatisfying, even though I’ve made the same criticism myself. This is a case study of Third Lebanon War (3LW), which became Next War Lebanon (NWL) upon publication by Decision Games. I tried to tease out a useful definition in the hope of moving discussion about development in the wargaming community toward better publication practice.

I first played designer Brian Train’s 3LW in advance of receiving NWL. The former is the designer’s edition, informed only by his own playtesting whereas the latter was the version DG brought to market, benefitting from the attentions of an in-house playtest and the effort of developer Eric Harvey. I’ve appreciated Train’s irregular warfare designs since 2007 when, in preparation of a presentation on French influences on US counterinsurgency, I came across his rather sober game Algeria, which was welcome compliment to my reading.

Over subsequent posts, I’ll try to set out the differences in game play between 3LW and NWL, set out the changes made over development, and come to a conclusion about the relation of each to the conflict they model.

Camp Bowie 1918, Preliminary Visualization

Looking north-west, toward Rivercrest and the West Fork of the Trinity River

Here’s a preliminary 3D model of my work for the Military Museum of Fort Worth. You can see the approximate locations (accurate to within a meter) of all the camp buildings, circa 1919, superimposed on the familiar Google Streets layer for contemporary Fort Worth.

A new model will fill in the trench that is perceptible when looking east down I30.

I will do further work to fill in the I30 trench in the digital elevation model. I plan to use the USGS LiDAR point cloud for North Texas to improve the precision of the underlying model and perform a TIN interpolation to fill in the trench, working from period contours. Final rendering to be done in Sketchup, skinned from period photography.

If you’re in the DFW area, you could do no better than to discover the local military heritage and history delivered by this gem of a museum. Like every good museum in Fort Worth (Amon Carter and Kimbell Art Museums) it is found right off Seventh Street. Also note that this realization was accomplished with data from Tarrant County Archives, NARA, FW Public Library and the collections of private individuals.

Click for a manipulable model.

Camp Bowie, 1917

My hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. Well, the west side of town, anyway.

You would think I would know my way around after forty some-odd years. The above was the most difficult georeferencing project I’ve done. I grew up in the woody part to the north west. If you look at period photographs of Fort Worth there aren’t any trees, however. There are barely any houses. Only a few of the stately homes survive. The only vestige of Camp Bowie (1917-18) that I can remember was, perhaps, the Prevost Street water tank, which was taken down around 1995. It’s a parking lot now, but locals will remember the place for the news stand that used to be there called “Under the Tower.” It used to be the only place on the west side of town (or anywhere in town?) you could buy an edition of the New York Times or Le Monde.

The project is to create a 3D visualization of the army camp which was created to train the 36th Infantry Division for France after its withdrawal from the Mexican border in 1916. It is challenging because all of the streets in Fort Worth were dirt back then. What permanency persists in the road grid owes to the cadastral parcels. Interstate 30 cuts right through the middle. All the streets that were laid on a parallel azimuth to Camp Bowie Boulevard (then Arlington Heights Boulevard) are gone. It is interesting to imagine my high school’s playing field serving as a parade ground for the 141st Infantry Regiment.

Open Vassal Playtest, Saturday 4 February 2017, 2000 UTC

Excerpt of an account of 359IR’s fighting vicinity of Chambois, ~22 August 1944

After a restorative holiday visit to the US I’m bringing back a great number of new documents from the John Colby papers housed at the University of Oklahoma, two of which are particularly illuminating about the action at Beau Coudray in which two companies of 357IR were overrun. (This will be the subject of an upcoming scenario, BEAU4.)

Anyway, I’ll be doing a drop-in playtest of the learning scenario SEV0. Download the playtest package and drop me a line. Or just show up. As usual, communications will be via Skype (neal.durando). If you need help using VASSAL, just let me know. It isn’t hard–there’s remarkably little configuration hassle.

VASSAL module
Playtest Kit

Demo at MMFW

Karl and Chris face off in a small scenario called “American Patrol”. I set out the counters and let them ask questions.

In hindsight I should have played against them both, hotseating between games. One of the difficulties of playing in a museum is that there are a lot of fascinating artifacts literally within arm’s reach that are catnip to chatty people like me.

I’m glad to have selected Band of Brothers to provide the base rules for the system. Both Karl and Chris were able to pick up concepts like LOS, movement costs, and fire attacks with a simple, verbal instruction. I don’t think Karl ever looked at the player aid card. This has less to do with the indifferent brevity of my explanations and more to do with the staying power of the base system designer Jim Krohn’s simple, enabling design decisions.

The experience inspired me to organize a starter set, a smaller footprint, print-and-play version of FTGU. Over the next month I’ll organize the four learning scenarios and a reduced counter set into four ledger-sized pages.

Demo at Military Museum of Fort Worth, 15 January, 1200 hours

Current exhibit (ends April 2017)

I’ll be there with the director of the museum. I’ll do a quick presentation of the game and we’ll get right to it. Depending on the number of people who show, I may run a short tournament with the prize being a complete set of playtest counters to the winner. We’ll play BEAU0 and SEV0, two all-infantry learning scenarios which take place on an excerpt from the Beau Coudray and Sèves maps. When I get a moment, I’ll put this together as a PnP sampler of the whole module. Anyway, hope to see you there!

A note about the Military Museum of Fort Worth. Tyler Alberts’s labor of love in honor of his grandfather is unbelievably well curated. Really a jewel of a museum and where I’ve done the lion’s share of my research. Tyler has unbelievably precise knowledge of individual veterans in addition to an excellent and deep understanding of 90ID’s actions from Normandy until the end of the war. He is especially good with the social history of the artefacts in his displays. If you want to know where the laundry number in a 1942-issue U.S. musette bag can be found, Tyler is you man. He can probably even track down the original owner. Even if your questions aren’t about 90ID, if you have a question about the experience of the citizen-soldier in the Second World War you would be hard pressed to find a more accessible and knowledgeable source.

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.

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.