Kandahar Hot Washup

Now you are looking at a photo of the affectless map; now you are reading an affectless caption.

There are, by my count, three games dealing with province-level counterinsurgency using Kandahar as its subject. Whether there are any Kandahar games wherein counterinsurgency is just an aspect of local life is doubtful, but worth considering. Which is to say, all three of these games seem to overlay theory upon geography. Okay, that’s what self-respecting theory should be able to do, but just as an exercise it would be interesting to take ethnographic specifics — examine endemic conflicts to see how they interact with extra regional conflict. I’m not going to do that here — file it away under BIG IDEAS — I just want to record my first impressions of Brian Train’s “Kandahar.” I won’t rise to the level of a review; I’m already preparing a review on another of Train’s recent offerings, Third Lebanon War. Enough is enough and I have my own cats to whip.

So you’ve got four boxes which at once depict space, time, and mode of operation without being too explicit. Hex-grid precision should be anathema to pol-mil designs. In fact, a hex grid is evidence against a game’s pertinence to pol-mil. BOX4 is workable and pertinent. It’s also visually unappealing. But, holy cow, BOX4 does great work supporting game decisions and timing. Which forces to risk in operation? Which to use for surveillance? For security? (Jeez I wish we had more specificity about the real human terrain, there.)

Movement is better integrated than it was in Algeria. Of course, the physical space in Kandahar is reduced so that seems fair. The support point system is more flexible than Algeria’s Political Support Level which is ahistorically brittle and far too severe. ISAF is always there with its money and firepower and velcro and CAS and bullshit. Train doesn’t fall into a 1:1 representational trap. ISAF units represent the main effort of whichever unspecified brigade has been assigned the battlespace. Joseph Miranda’s expensive game BCT: Kandahar probably models this a little more finely (but probably not in traditionally broken-out units, either). In this game, ISAF units are bright points to be danced around or attacked according to your secret mission victory conditions (awesome). As mine in the learning game was “Jihad” I had a hell of a lot of fun attacking isolated cadres, even thought the combat elements are infinite bullet sponges. You earn points for manning up and messing with them. Sure, you’ll lose half your force, but you can patch yourself up with all the heavy dosh forwarded from the Gulf.

I’m nearing five hundred words and I haven’t mentioned the chrome. It’s excellent. And subtle. I officially declare I’m stealing the intelligence routines for one of my own designs. (I came up with something similar on my own, but Train’s is more expedient. No. I swear.) Intelligence here isn’t just b.s. smeared across the game’s chassis. It is a contest in itself well worth winning. The game is deep and wide and worth digging into, maybe too deep for some Sundays, but not mine.


One damned thing after another. You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your rifle grenade.
One damned thing after another. You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your rifle grenade.

One damned thing after another is the going rate, the obligatory gait of narrative, ludic or historical. In life, of course, there is simultaneity. But comprehension, language itself, dissolves under the stress and confusion of all the damned things happening at once. Event tends to the discrete and comes to be expressed out of sequence. Here is the sound of a 90ID veteran trying to bring order to his experience:

“I was a rifle grenadier. We hit the dirt because of 88s coming in. We advanced and I was supposed to use a rifle grenade on a German tank. My grenades were gone. I told Lt. Duncan I must have lost them when we hit the dirt. We went into combat with about 200 men. About June 12 there were only 12 of us, and after the artillery there were only six.”
— Ralph O. Sinamon, L/357IR

In order for players of a manual game to resolve actions between them there must be discrete events. One game event has to end before another may begin. A strict scale worsens the time compression for which board wargames are infamous. Myself I have no direct experience of combat, but I’ve participated in multi-day NATO command post exercises. It’s true: simulated war can be deadly boring. Play a decent computer land warfare simulator, something like Battle Command, at 1:1 time scale to get a taste of the waiting around for maneuver elements to coordinate properly, artillery preparation to complete, and assaults to resolve. But if you compress it at all, it is over in a blink. The problem was recognized from the start of the squad-level wargame idiom:

Time was said to be two minutes per turn, though the developer, John Hill, admits that this is “fudged” and that each game turn should be considered a “module of time, such that the (game’s) events can occur and interact with one another.”
Squad Leader Rulebook, Designer’s Notes.

The engine which powers my game is similarly loose about the time scale. Many traditions are worth continuing. But for the multi-day scenarios in From the Ground Up I need something else again. Time (even “modules” of it) only matter if you don’t have enough. Anticipating a shortage of time is the cardinal skill of operations planning and one that the officers of 90th ID initially had great trouble with.

Division and the regiments constantly ordered complex attacks late in the afternoon, often with the result of the line companies waking up to well-sighted barrages on the forward slopes where they were obliged to spend the night. Daylight conditions at 49 degrees north in the early summer mean fourteen-hour days. I figured night would be around seven, leaving three for morning and dusk conditions. Adopting a strict two-minute time scale would mean 30-turn hours. Experienced players maneuvering to contact require thirty to forty minutes to play out one turn. One hour of game time would therefore equal about 15 hours real time. Flexible time keeping is in order.

Pulling the focus a little has had a flattering effect on the base system. The basic mechanic of Band of Brothers is ten-sided die roll against a target number. Low numbers are good. There are fourteen hours of daylight conditions. Why not check at the end of every recovery phase against the number of turns already played? A number equal to or less than the die roll advances the lighting condition (day becomes dusk, dusk becomes night, night becomes morning). But what about pushing your unit harder to get more done in the day? Simple. The game gives you command points representing the quality of your command. So spend those to modify the number downward. If both players allocate these command points in secret, the exact end of the day will still be randomly determined and it remains possible to go beyond the fourteen-hour day in a number of turns. This strikes me as elegant and playable. I’ve used it in preliminary testing. A turn that represents something between two minutes and an hour accounts for short lulls, confusion, inefficiency, and passing weather effects. A lie? Sure. I’ll leave the 1:15 game-to-real-world time ratio to others.

And, no, there will be no Major Jack Celliers counter. Including one would mean the game could never fit in any box. Merry Christmas anyway, Mr. Lawrence.

Artillery Angst, bis

Cannoneers from 9ID send some fear and loathing downrange.

Jim Krohn is perfectly explicit in his designer’s notes for BoB:SE: “This is not a game about artillery.” Fair enough. Representing artillery fire is left to scenario designers who have a basic mechanism and a palette of geomorphic boards to create an impressionistic treatment of various actions that are well separated in time and space. Okay. The lines of sight and engagement ranges can be very long. And it works just fine.

FTGU isn’t a game about artillery, either. But the weapons can take tall walks through your lines and sure can ruin your day. You can’t sidestep the subject, either, as it was (and is) the greatest producer of casualties in high-intensity conflict. Doing so would make no more sense than avoiding the role of armor’s employment at the tactical echelon. Everyone should get a look at Henri Levaufre’s collection of concussion-shattered helmets that he has recovered over the years from the four battlefields depicted in FTGU. I have never seen such artifacts in museums. Here’s the English-edition cover of his book. It seems to say, “Whoopsie. Where did my cover go?” But here’s the French.

I don’t want to tiptoe around the reality of this. From a design standpoint it really is a problem of scale. A game about artillery needs, at the least, 100-meter hexes, if not 500-meter ones. One day, I’d love to play that game for all the insight it would deliver. How to make a powerful aspect present yet maintain focus? An ideal solution would avoid any more overhead than the original rules. I’ve read a few technical books, gazed at manuals, solicited a few expert opinions, and balanced this against my personal knowledge. Nothing has impressed me more than Henri’s roomful of shattered helmets. There’s a reason why artillery is a whole separate branch of the military, too. The subject is as complex as it is diabolical.

I suppose asking players to bear up under a little more overhead for historical reasons, or simply out of respect for the demon, would not be out of order.

Settle Down, Gunners

Entry from 343FA's battalion journal, 15 June 1944 explaining the difficulty in coordinating with the Army Air Corps during the 3/357's attack on Gourbesville. No colored smoke! D'oh!
Entry from 343FA’s battalion journal, 15 June 1944 explaining the difficulty in coordinating with the Army Air Corps during the 3/357’s attack on Gourbesville. No colored smoke! D’oh!

As a designer, I don’t like to create new things. Yes, that’s right. After you tell enough lies to get your game going, any further lies you have to tell should be in the context of what has come before. You think you need a new mechanism? New pieces? Consider trying to address the problem you see in terms of what you’ve already created. Be careful you are not creating more problems or opening more doors than you intend. Everything that rises must converge.

So much for design aesthetics. On to artillery. In the context of one-off scenarios the basic rules are okay. Lines of sight across perfectly flat terrain without depressions are easily had most of the time. But this is a rare case on my maps of Lower Normandy. Indeed, spotting for artillery was a real challenge historically. Using the base rules on playtest maps often resulted in artillery being used as a turn-ending throwaway called at very close range to friendly forces. Sure this sort of mission was fired in 1944 but it was still with great care and rarely in haste.

The US Army considered that danger close, the closest distance to friendly forces that a mission might fire was 500 yards, or 12 hexes. Absent very large maps, artillery is difficult to portray in games with 40-yard hexes. Even 32×24-inch map would need to have four map sheets before you could reliably work observation posts into play. Infantry battles throughout the Western Front in WW2 can be understood as battalion operations with the objective of securing observation posts for their, and their regiment’s, next maneuver.

FTGU Counter Design

From the Ground Up Rules 16JAN2016.docx
Squad and vehicle counter design for FTGU.
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.

Enabling Lies Wargames Tell

Recent playtest of St. Léonard, Situation 1, "Not Such a Bad War After All."
Recent playtest of St. Léonard, Situation 1, “Not Such a Bad War After All.”

No notion takes flight without a leap of faith. Games are of necessity simplified ambitions of the designer. I think there’s a long literary explanation for this bearing on how one best spends one’s limited time on earth, but I’ll spare you further elaboration. After all a game can’t quite save your life but it can feel that way. And it certainly helps if the designer feels the threat or possibility that time might run out. To distract ourselves from this, to get any game started, we need enabling lies.

Hexes are a lie. CRTs are a lie. Until they are tested, probabilities themselves are a lie. But some lies are better than others. A designer’s job is to choose the most enabling ones. A developer’s job is to leverage those choices even further. You can’t have a game otherwise. Good lies suspend disbelief, enable appropriate paranoia, but also seem to rhyme with historical truths. Band of Brothers is a good game system. Do I move or do I fire? What if I am making a terrible mistake? Players end up torturing themselves with the same questions which bother tactical commanders.

Historical truths themselves have crossed the horizon of probability and become validated as facts. I don’t mean to be so obscure. In the broad context of From the Ground Up, it wasn’t at all certain that the entire Normandy invasion would not be thrown back into the sea, although it is difficult to imagine this would be the case now. It turns out the telling fact was the amount of shells that an ever-growing artillery park could deliver to enemy targets was the central fact of the campaign and, not incidentally, one of easier ones to calculate beforehand. More on such knowable unknowns and low-hanging fruit, later.

In designing historical games you have to come to some understanding of which factual results represent outliers to probability. To take up Normandy again, it wasn’t considered possible that simply offloading supplies to the beachheads without any port infrastructure could surpass the capacity of a port or artificial harbor, yet hindsight shows this was the case. This was not an outlier, but in the order of things, however unforeseen. The challenge to the designer is more pronounced when you climb down through the operational echelon to the tactical. Study of any given tactical battle often argues that it was yet another for-the-want-of-a-nail event.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at some of the enabling lies that I’ve had to tell to get the design of From the Ground Up, ahem, off the ground. I mean to write something about time, scale, artillery, and (my favorite) terrain.