A different method of playing card activation

In one of his comments regarding the recent play-test of my ITCHY AND SCRATCHY rules, Arthur1815 made the following suggestion:

‘I would suggest having counters labelled or linked to the units, and draw one at a time to determine which unit acts next, so that one does not know in advance the order in which one’s own/enemy units will be activated. A bit more preparatory work, perhaps, and slightly slower in play, but surely more realistic?

This set me thinking, and I have come up with an idea that I want to play-test as soon as I can.

In an ideal world I would produce a special playing card (or unit card) for each unit. Together these would form a pack which could be shuffled and laid face down next to the playing surface. The top playing/unit card would then be turned over and that unit would then be activated. This is basically what Arthur1815 suggested … but I have an idea that might take the whole thing one stage further.

My idea would be to allocate a suit colour and particular card number to each unit (i.e. the Frontier Guides are Red 1). The relevant cards would then be extracted from a normal pack of playing cards and used to make up a pack of unit cards for that battle. The pack would be shuffled and placed face down somewhere convenient. The top card would then be turned over, and the relevant unit would be activated. This would continue until all the cards – and units – had been activated. The pack would then be shuffled again … and the process repeated.

An example of a unit – in this case Red 1 – and the playing card that will activate it. This unit has a multi-figure base and a magnetic marker that represents its current strength. This magnetic marker would be changed as the unit begins to suffer casualties.

This simple system could easily be made more complex … and more unpredictable. If all the cards in a normal pack of playing cards – with the exception of the Jokers – were used rather than just the relevant ones, each unit would have two potential activations (i.e. Red 1 would be activated when the Ace or Hearts and Ace of Diamonds was turned over). This would mean that a unit might be activated for a second time immediately after it had been activated for the first time.

If the Jokers were included things could be made even more unpredictable by reshuffling the pack when a Joker was turned over. Using this method you could get rid of conventional ‘turns’ and have a continual series of unit activations. Not only that, but a unit might be activated more than once before a Joker is turned over … and some units may never be activated at all! This might seem a bit extreme, but it would certainly ensure an element of uncertainty in a game.

It seems to me to be a concept that is worth trying out once just to see whether or not it works, although my predisposition to making small evolutionary changes mean that I would probably want to start with the ‘one unit has one unit card’ option first.


32 Comments on “A different method of playing card activation”

  1. This project is getting ibnterestinger and interestinger by the day. I like the concept, especially for solo play. I'm just wondering though what its practical limits might be.

    For quite some time now, I have has a 19th Century 'period' project lying dormant. It was built with Phil Barker's 'Horse, Foot Guns' rule set in mind, but for a number of reasons I'm going off that idea. The reason it hasn't really made it to my blog spot is it peculiar limbo status.

    What you have been suggesting here fits very well with what I've so far built up: 4 foot or 3 horse to a base, or one gun. I am wondering about 'skirmisher' stands or specialised light infantry but may not in the end bother with them…

    The size of the project might be problematic, though. At the moment the Army of Azuria (BLUE) comprises 40 stands of foot, about 6 stands of horse (2 each of cuirassiers, lancers and hussars/chasseurs-a-cheval), and probably 6 artillery stands.

    At one foot stand representing a battalion, the whole represents an Army Corps of 3 Divisions. You can see already (especially as from memory my Ruberian (RED) army is larger at present) that even a full deck of cards won't be enough to accommodate battalion level activation.

    Perhaps brigade level activation (or formation command) might be practical. To take the BLUE Army Corps, it comprises 10 infantry Brigades in 3 Divisions, plus a Cavalry Division of 3 Brigades. Artillery are Div and Corps level troops.

    A 'first pass' concept to allow 13 cards by brigade, plus 4 by Division, plus 1 Army Corps – total 18. Div and Army corps activation is the point at which their arty kicks in.

    Your thoughts?

    I might do this as an article in my blogspot (though that won't be for a little bit of a while as I get through other projects!).


  2. Bob

    In many of MacDuff's many, many incarnations Ross Mac used the card activation system that you describe. It worked really well.

    One nice result was that troops marching in road column automatically got spread apart.

    I enjoy your words as always

  3. phf says:

    You could use multiple decks if you wanted some units (either elite or recon, perhaps) tio activate with greater frequency.

  4. Arthur says:

    Hi Bob

    Good thinking, I think.

    But another thought is that perhaps activating just the HQ's or leaders would reduce the dealers burden and make the game speedier.

    I say this without even knowing what your organisations look like.

    But if leadership was at say a brigade level then the 3 or 4 battalions under command all activate with the single card.


  5. Bill says:

    We use a card method for unit activation for many of our games. We tend to have a low unit count per person. Each person gets a hand of cards totaling the number of units they have. They assign cards, face down, in the order they want their units to move. Then we all turn the cards face up and move them in suit and number order. We also do this with skirmish games.

  6. I was going to say that I have used (and still do on occasion) card activation of the sort you suggest with good success but the Admiral has beat me to it.

    Another possible twist for the joker is to use it to signal a Chance Card or random event that applies to the next unit drawn.

    You could also keep the ability of a commander to activate a unit on his card as well as on its own.

  7. Pete says:

    If you have a computer near your table you can create and use custom (electronic) card decks here. (Scroll down for instructions.)

  8. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    The recent blog entries do seem to have sparked off quite a lot of discussion, and I am very pleased to read that you are finding it so!

    Like all systems, the playing card activation system has its limitations. One of them is the number of units you can have. As there are only 13 cards in each suit, that would seem to be the practical limit. (Interestingly 12 is the maximum number of units usually fielded in DBx and HOTT.)

    (As an aside, I took part in one of Phil Barker's play-test of 'Horse, Foot Guns' … much to his despair. I managed to get my Prussian troops charged by a French cavalry unit … which went though my front line troops, my gun line, and into the HQ area, routing everything in their path. Phil said that I had set back military thinking by decades!)

    Looking at the size of your armies it would seem to make sense to link the stands/units together to create brigades and to activate them (and each element in the divisional and corps assets) with a separate card for each. Other than producing a separate card for each unit – which would create very large pack of cards and which would also slow the game down – I cannot see a practical way forward.

    Something to think about over the coming weeks and months.

    All the best,


  9. Peter Douglas,

    It may well be that it was something that I read on Ross Mac's blog (but had forgoptten that I had read) that came to mind when I started to put my ideas down on paper.

    I suspect that when using this sort of system road columns end up being a bit like the M25; stop, start, bunched up traffic, and spread-out traffic … almost all happening at the same time in different parts of the column.

    All the best,


  10. Phf,

    That was an option that I thought about, but decided not to include at this particular moment.

    Nonetheless it is a good idea, and one that I will file away for possible use in the future.

    All the best,


  11. john yorio says:

    to tack on to Ross Mac's suggestion, the first Joker could be attached to a random event, while the 2nd would signify the end of the turn/re-shuffle.

    this is a method I use to some success in a variety of solo situations.

  12. Arthur,

    In the past I have used something similar in large face-to-face games and it worked very well indeed. I am not sure how well it would work with a smaller and/or solo battle, although it would appear that this method of activation is something that Archduke Piccolo may use if his nineteenth century project moves out of its current state of suspended animation.

    All the best,


  13. Bill,

    I like the idea that the players choose which card is allocated to which unit. That gives players a degree of decision making that would otherwise be missing.

    A neat solution to the problem.

    All the best,


  14. Ross Mac,

    I like the concept of using the Joker to trigger some sort of random event that will affect the next unit that is activated. That could really spoil someone's best laid plans.

    I would assume that the General was a unit (and thus entitled to a separate activation for themselves and/or any unit they are co-located with) in the proposed system. I think that it is an innovation I will not want to lose.

    All the best,


  15. Pete,

    Thanks for the link. I don't usually have a computer near to my wargames table, but the electronic card deck program you have bought to my attention might make it a very good idea to do so.

    All the best,


  16. John Yorio,

    Your suggestion adds a very subtle twist to the mechanism. Thank you for sharing it with me and my other regular blog readers.

    All the best,


  17. arthur1815 says:

    A whole variety of interesting ideas with which to experiment here!
    Archduke Piccolo's idea of applying activation to larger formations is surely the way to go for army-level games.
    The Joker signalling the end of a turn and/or reshuffling of the pack is similar to the mechanism used in some of the Too Fat Lardies rules. The one thing that worries me about such a system is that, on occasion, a unit might go without being activated for some considerable time (this would not be so much of a problem if it automatically continued with its existing orders), which might be rather unrealistic and cause the same dissatisfaction some players feel with the Piquet rules system.
    I think we may need to beware of making activation too random…

  18. A further thought on pre-assigned vs player's choice systems. I have used both. Letting the player choose gives a degree of control without being too predictable and is a good balance.

    I have found the method whereby the card is preassigned to a unit is best for situations where command control is difficult, night fights, fighting in woods or cities, or other situations where small units are using their initiative within an over all plan, etc. I also prefer it for my 16th Century games.

  19. I looked at Pete's link, and found the thing very simple – simpler than it looks! By way of an experiment I created a card deck by adding a single line for each: Army Corps Command, 4 Infantry and 1 Cavalry Division; 12 Infantry and 3 Cavalry Brigades, each for RED and BLUE – a total of 40 cards in the deck.

    Simple. Then I could draw them one at a time into the 'Hand' space. One thing, later cards go 'under' earlier ones, but I quickly found that arranging them from the the bottom left upwards then to the right with just the single line title showing worked fine.

    For a game of this scale, it would take a while to play through a single turn (well over half an hour at any rate). The upside of this will be each turn will be full of incident.

  20. Just one point that occurred to me in the middle of the night: is it possible (or even desirable) in your present system to 'reserve' an action.

    Example can be drawn from your game example. Suppose a fist line hillman warband (Ali Baba's Own), waiting behind its sangar for the enemy (1/8th Whisky Mac Rgt) to come within range, draws really early and finds itself with nothing to do as the enemy is not yet in range. Enemy, of course, advances into range (presumably) without drawing fire. Next turn, the ABO draws something horrible, whilst 1/8th gleefully draws low and gets to move again before incurring any incoming.

    Is this good? To be honest, I'm in two minds about it. Reserved actions will be a complication, and its lack can be justified in all sorts of ways (the ABO holding their fire, the ABO caught by surprise, or maybe in a state of unreadiness…) yet in certain circumstances, I think you might want a defending (ambush) unit to act 'out of turn'.

    What do you think?

  21. Arthur1815,

    This discussion has really taken off … and there are lots of good ideas flying about as a result!

    I also think the Archduke Piccolo’s idea for activating large formations would work rather well, especially in the sort of army-level games that you like to design. I look forward to reading about how you use the idea in a forthcoming issue of MWBG!

    I agree with you that making the activation too random is probably taking things too far, and I am going to opt for the simplest version of the concept in my forthcoming play-test … which should – with a bit of luck – take place over the next few days.

    All the best,


  22. Ross Mac,

    I can see your reasoning with regard to pre-assigned vs. player's choice systems, but as I am initially designing this for solo use with quite small forces I think that I will stick to using pre-assigned cards for the time being. If I do take it forward into a design for face-to-face battles (there is every chance that I will do) I will probably opt for some level of player choice.

    All the best,


  23. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    In the system used by Ian Drury and Richard Brooks for their RED SQUARE rules it is possible for units to ‘reserve’ their activation in certain circumstances. It does work … but I think that it only works if the number of ‘reservations’ is limited in some way, otherwise things can grind to a halt with players arguing ‘if you do that, then I will activate this unit that has ‘reserved’ its activation, but if you don’t then my unit will stay ‘reserved’’.

    I can see the validity behind your example, but it could also be argued that sometimes units don’t do the obvious – such as fire at a unit that comes into range and then goes out of range again – because of unforeseen circumstances. For example, the inability of the Turks to hit the Australian Light Horse when the latter got closer to the Turkish trenches because they were not reminded/ordered to change the setting on their rifle sights. Would this ever happen in a conventional wargame?

    All the best,


  24. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    I have only had a quick look at the website Pete recommended, but from what you have written it may well be the answer.

    I will try to experiment with the program tomorrow … if I get the time.

    All the best,


  25. Phil Dutré says:

    Assigning units to specific cards is very much like the game Battlemasters (MB/GW), from the nineties.

    In my gaming group, we have experimented with such a setup, but abandoned it. The problem is indeed that traffic jams will occur (at least, if no unit interpenetration during movement is allowed). This is not a problem in open field battles, but when i.e. a force has to cross a bridge, it did lead to quite some frustrations with several missed turns if the lead unit did not get activated early enough.

    We therefore switched to systems in which the cards stated how many, but not what units to activate (cfr. Memoir44). A potential problem here is that it is difficult to keep the ratio of units activated per turn a fixed proportion to your total force. If not, it becomes very hard to fight battles with uneven forces (e.g. 3:1 attacks), since the defender will have an unfair advantage and the attacker can never exploit his 3:1 advantage.

  26. Pete says:

    I've tweaked the card deck page. When you select a card it automatically goes on top of all the others. Hopefully this is a more natural behaviour and will make the page easier to use.

  27. Phil Dutre,

    I had never heard of BATTLEMASTERS and will try to find out more information about it when I have the time.

    Funnily enough it is problems like traffic jams that I think should occur on the tabletop as it reflects the sort of 'friction of war' that happens in real battles.

    I like the card system used in MEMOIR '44 (and it's sister games) but agree that it can unduly affect a player's ability to set up a successful attack.

    All the best,


  28. Pete,

    I hope to have a look at the card deck page later today or at some time over the weekend as it sounds like it will be a great game aid.

    All the best,


  29. Sean says:

    A lot of good ideas here and Pete's card site is useful. It struck me that this sounded a lot like the mechanisms used in Bolt Action and Too Fat Lardies suite, although I have never played either. I like the idea of randomly having units activate for solo play.

  30. Sean,

    I must admit that I never expected this particular blog entry to spark off such a useful discussion … but I am pleased that it did.

    I have never seen – let alone used – either Bolt Action or the Too Fat Lardies rules, but if they are using something very similar then I can rest assured that it works!

    For solo wargaming, randomly activated units is – in my opinion – an absolute MUST, and as the latest play-test show, it works.

    All the best,


  31. Instead of cards I buy a stack of poker chips from a dollar store, then print a units name on a number of them based on quality put in bag and each player draws from their bag one chip then simultaneously activate their unit. for variations or events or special rules just print up another chip and toss it in. Resolves the problem of there only being a limited number of cards in a deck.

  32. Vexed Dragon,

    Thanks for your suggestion.

    I have looked at similar methods of randomised unit activation using numbered counters drawn from a bag, and it does work. My problem is that none of what you term 'dollar stores' (we call them 'pound shops' in the UK) in the area where I live sell poker chips … but they do sell playing cards.

    I suppose that we end up using what is easiest for us to get quick and cheap access to.

    All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s