Nugget 130 … A particularly good issue

In preparation for yesterday’s blog entry, I read through NUGGET No.130 … and realised that it contained an article that had important ramifications for my subsequent wargame designs. The article was written by Ian Drury and was a report about a session he had run at the previous COW (Conference of Wargamers). The report – which was entitled ‘Return to New Stanhall’ – described his game about an opposed landing in the South Pacific during the Second World War, and included a complete set of rules.

During the following year I developed Ian’s rules into a set of Colonial wargames rules called SCWaRes (Simple Colonial Wargames Rules) that used a gridded playing surface. I demonstrated SCWaRes at a subsequent COW, and I began to be convinced that this was they way forward for my future wargame designs.

A photograph of my very first play-test of the rules that eventually became SCWaRes.

A photograph of one of the battles fought as part of the Mirkat Campaign. The rules used were the final version of SCWaRes.

Over the next few years I continued to develop my ideas, influenced by Ian Drury and Richard Brook’s RED SQUARES rules (e.g. REDCOATS AND DERVISHES) and by Mike & Joyce Smith’s TABLE TOP BATTLES: TABLE TOP WARGAMING WITH MINIATURES. The end result of this process was WHEN EMPIRES CLASH!

The next major ‘leap forward’ was my re-discovery of Joseph Morschauser’s book, HOW TO PLAY WAR GAMES IN MINIATURE. The illustrations of Morschauser’s battles fought on a gridded battlefield spurred me on to research further into his wargame designs … and these researches were incorporated into John Curry’s re-print of Morschauser’s book and subsequently to my latest opus THE PORTABLE WARGAME rules.

And to think that all this began thirteen years ago!

Operational-level Wargame Design 4: Why activation cards?

Other than in a real-time computer simulation, it is almost impossible to design a wargame without having to make compromises as to who can do what and when they can do it.

Basically it comes down to a choice between two alternatives:

  • ‘I go; you go’;
  • Simultaneous movement.

Over many years I have played – and designed – wargames using both of these alternatives, but I have never felt satisfied with the results.

If the ‘I go; you go’ method is used, it can lead to one side standing around waiting for their turn whilst the other side moves it forces and initiates combat; this is both boring and not conducive to ‘fun’ wargaming. If the ‘simultaneous movement’ method is used, it is crucial that players are very specific in what they intend to happen when they write down their orders, otherwise games seem to dissolve into series of acrimonious arguments. In addition, neither system works if – like me – a lot of your wargaming is done solo.

The first alternative method to these two mainstays of wargames design that I ever incorporated into one of my own designs was copied from an idea in John Sandars’ AN INTRODUCTION TO WARGAMING (1975). He used a numbered counter system to determine the order in which units were activated during each turn. At the beginning of each turn the players picked the same number of numbered counters out of a bag as units they commanded. They then allocated a numbered counter to each unit in the order that they wanted that unit to be activated during the turn. When the turn began, the unit with number ‘1’ was activated, then ‘2’, and so on until each unit had been activated. The counters were then collected back in and put back into the bag for the next turn.

This modified version of ‘I go; you go’ seemed to overcome some of the problems generated by the conventional ‘I go; you go’ system, although lovers of ‘simultaneous movement’ still objected to it. Furthermore, unless the numbered counters were picked out of the bag ‘blind’ and allocated to units unseen, it did not work well in solo games.

The next method I used was developed from ideas that I first read in Larry Brom’s THE SWORD AND THE FLAME. This method used a pack of playing cards where one side was allocated ‘red’ and the other ‘black’. The playing cards were shuffled, and when a ‘red’ card was turned over, the ‘red’ side could activate a unit, and when a ‘black’ card was turned over, the ‘black’ side could activate a unit. This continued until all the playing cards had been turned over, at which point they were reshuffled and play continued.

This ‘continuous movement’ system did seem to work well with both face-to-face and solo wargames, and I used it in BUNDOCK AND BAYONETS and RESTLESS NATIVES. However some players objected to the idea that one unit could – if the turn of cards allowed it – be activated several times one after another.

Richard Brooks and Ian Drury (both of whom are fellow members of Wargame Developments) then introduced me to a different method of using playing cards to determine the order in which units were activated. They used the smallest playing cards that are generally available (they are specially produced for the card game ‘Solitaire’). The cards were shuffled and then dealt face down to each unit on the table, and once dealt, they were turned over. The unit that had been dealt the playing card with the lowest value was activated first, then the unit with the next lowest value playing card, and so on until all the units that could be activated had been activated. This system worked extremely well, and gave the feeling of ‘continuous movement’ without allowing a unit to be activated time and time again before their opponents could respond. I was so impressed with what became a standard element of all the RED SQUARE wargame designs that I have used it in almost all my wargame designs of recent years, including RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES and REDCOATS AND NATIVES.

My only objection to this system is an aesthetic one; I don’t like having the playing cards on the tabletop. I therefore looked around for an alternative that would do the same job but would not require me to deal playing cards onto the tabletop. After a couple of false starts I came up with the concept of activation cards.

Each unit has an activation card that bears its name. These are printed onto business cards using an inkjet printer, and are then laminated. When a unit is deployed onto the tabletop, its activation card is added to the pack of activation cards that will be used for this wargame. The pack is shuffled, and when a unit’s activation card is turned over, that unit is activated.

It is worth noting that a variation of this system was used for SOLFERINO IN THIRTY MINUTES, the main difference being that instead of unit activation cards, there were commander activation cards.

This system has worked well in play-tests, and it is the system that I will be using in my operational-level wargame design.

Redcoats and Natives (Tarred and Featherstoned) – Play-test 2

The second play-test of REDCOATS AND NATIVES followed on from the first. Sheik Mehmet Abdullah’s forces – reinforced by two newly recruited units of Jihadia infantry and an additional field artillery unit equipped with the recently captured Egyptian Krupp artillery (all rated as ‘Average’) – advanced on Mhedemi, a riverside village. Two Egyptian infantry units and an Egyptian machine gun unit garrison the village (all rated as ‘Below average’).

Knowing that the Mahdist forces are advancing, the local Egyptian commander – Asif Ali Bey – ordered the garrison of Mhedemi to evacuate the village, and sent a gunboat (rated as ‘Average’) to pick them up.

Note: The gunboat moved at the same speed as cavalry and carried the equivalent of a breech loading artillery unit. It could be sunk by the equivalent of four substantial hits on artillery by artillery (i.e. the artillery not only had to hit the gunboat but to also score 10, 11, or 12 when 2D6 were thrown to determine the effects of a hit). The gunboat came into sight of the village when it was dealt a red picture card.

Turn 1 began with the Mahdist forces lining the inland escarpment and the Egyptians occupying the defence line around the village of Mhedemi.

The Mahdist artillery fire was devastating. The Egyptian machine gun unit was repeatedly hit and despite being behind cover it was destroyed. In addition two of the Egyptian infantrymen were also killed. At the same time the Mahdist infantry advanced down the escarpment and began to move towards the Egyptian defences.

During turn 2 the Mahdist artillery barrage continued, and a further two Egyptian infantrymen were killed. However the advance of the Mahdist infantry units on the left flank was disrupted by the arrival of the Egyptian gunboat, which opened fire on them. Unfortunately its gunfire had little or no effect, but its arrival gave the Egyptian garrison some hope of rescue.

The next turn saw an assault on both the right and left of the Egyptian defences. Fierce hand-to-hand combat resulted in the destruction of one of the Egyptian infantry units, but at a heavy price for the two newly raised Mahdist Jihadia infantry units. The survivors of the other Egyptian infantry unit fired a volley at the Mahdist infantry that were almost upon them, and then fell back to the riverbank, where the Egyptian gunboat had come alongside. The newly equipped Mahdist artillery unit engaged the Egyptian gunboat, and scored a hit on her. The gunboat returned fire, but missed.

Turn 4 saw the remnants of the Egyptian garrison board the gunboat just before the Mahdists reached the landing stage. The gunboat then cast off – not a moment too soon – and set sail. The Mahdist artillery fired at the retreating Egyptians, but they were soon out of sight, leaving Sheik Mehmet Abdullah’s forces in control of Mhedemi … and with sufficient captured rifles to equip at least one more unit of infantry.

Lessons learned:

The minor change to the rule as to ‘who fires first’ in a combat worked without a problem, but will probably be changed back to its original form in the next draft. This is a result of the play-test as the revised rules allowed the Mahdists to charge the Egyptian positions without the Egyptians having the opportunity to fire at them as they did so.

The card activation system did produce some interesting results. For example one of the Egyptian infantry units was able to fire at the advancing Mahdists and then withdraw because it was activated by a lower card than that dealt to the Mahdist units. The other Egyptian infantry unit was not as fortunate, and was over-run.

Artillery can be devastating if used en masse, something the Mahdists did not do in reality.

The Close Combat rules produce very bloody results if neither side prevails during the first round. The hand-to-hand fighting during turn 3 resulted in both sides suffering very heavy casualties because the combat went through three rounds before it was resolved.

Gunboats can be used without a major re-write of the rules.

Redcoats and Natives (Tarred and Featherstoned) – Play-test 1

The first play-test of REDCOATS AND NATIVES was set in the Sudan during the period before the Siege of Khartoum, when the Egyptians were still trying to extort taxes from the population and the Mahdi’s power was still on the rise.

A column of Egyptian troops (two infantry units, an artillery unit, and a machine gun unit, all rated as ‘Average’) led by Mustafa Pasha was advancing on the small town of El Mhet. The local sheik had recently received representatives from the Mahdi. They had persuaded him to support the Mahdi, and had sent three units of Jihadia infantry and two artillery units (all rated as ‘Average’) – led by Sheik Mehmet Abdullah – to garrison the town. The sheik had no doubts that when the Egyptians (or ‘Turks’ as he preferred to call them) came to collect more taxes – as come they would – he would ambush them and put them all to the sword.

When news of the Egyptian column’s approach reached El Mhet, Sheik Mehmet Abdullah positioned one of his artillery units in a valley to the left of the Egyptian line of advance. From that location it should be able to enfilade the Egyptian column and prevent it from deploying to its left. He positioned the other artillery unit by the town’s fort, which he had garrisoned with one of his infantry units..

The other two infantry units were hidden from view; one was behind a small range of hills on the left of the approach to the Sudanese town and the other behind the large hill to the right.

The Egyptian column was led by one of the infantry units. Behind the infantry came the artillery unit and the machine gun unit, with the second infantry unit taking up the rear. Because they were not expecting to encounter any Mahdist forces in the area the Egyptians did not deploy any scouts.

During the first two turns the Egyptians advanced unhindered towards the town in column. However, during turn 3 the Egyptian machine gun unit had problems moving forward, and this caused the rearmost infantry unit to move slightly to the right, thus breaking the column. This was compounded at the start of turn 4 when the machine gun unit moved forward so quickly that it ended alongside the artillery unit. Before Mustafa Pasha could sort out the resultant confusion, the hidden Mahdist artillery unit opened fire. The concentration of so many Egyptian troops in so small an area was too tempting a target to ignore … and the effect of the Mahdist artillery fire was devastating. Two infantrymen and one of the machine gun crew were killed and the artillery unit was destroyed. The only bright point for the Egyptians was that their morale was seemingly unaffected.

In reply to this artillery barrage the leading Egyptian infantry unit attempted to deploy to its left, but this then exposed it to cannon fire from the Mahdist artillery unit in the town. Its gunfire was less effective as it only killed a single Egyptian infantryman, but the Egyptian unit’s morale was severely tested by this further loss.

Turn 4 saw the Egyptian machine gun unit unlimber so that it could be deployed to engage the closer of the two Mahdist artillery units whilst the second Egyptian infantry unit changed formation into line and continued its advance. At the same time the other Egyptian infantry unit began firing at the crew of the Mahdist artillery unit, which returned fire, neither unit managing to cause casualties to the other. Seeing the confusion in the Egyptian ranks, the Mahdist infantry unit that has been positioned behind the large hill to the right broke cover and charged towards the full-strength Egyptian infantry unit.

The next turn was crucial for the Egyptians. By the beginning of turn 5 they were already down to 65% of their original strength, and had caused no casualties on the Mahdists. If they suffered another 3 casualties they would be forced to retire. The fall of cards did little to help the situation, as the majority of the lower value cards were dealt to the Mahdists. This allowed them to activate most of their units before the Egyptians could respond.

The Mahdist artillery units both fired at the depleted Egyptian infantry unit, but caused no casualties. The Egyptians returned fire on the nearest enemy artillery unit but was equally unsuccessful. Both the previously concealed Mahdist infantry units were dealt black playing cards, and this enabled them to rush forward and engage both the Egyptian infantry units. The already depleted unit suffered another casualty – and turned and fled, its morale having collapsed. The other Egyptian infantry unit was far steadier, and caused a casualty on its attackers at no cost to themselves. Finally the Egyptian machine gun was brought into action against the nearby Mahdist artillery unit … and killed the Mahdist gun crew.

At this point the Egyptians had lost over 50% of their initial strength either dead or fleeing from the battlefield. The Mahdists had also begun to suffer casualties, and despite their desire to pursue the Egyptians Sheik Mehmet Abdullah prevailed upon his troops to allow the ‘Turks’ to retreat. After all, they had left behind enough modern artillery to equip a new Mahdist artillery unit, and the dead Egyptians’ rifles could be used to rearm all or part of one of the Jihadia infantry units. Furthermore news of the growing power of the forces of the Mahdi would spread throughout the area, and would bring in more recruits.

Lessons learned:

Because the rules are based on RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES (TARRED AND FEATHERSTONED) it was to be expected that they would work. As it was, they worked even better than I had hoped, and although I will have more play-tests I doubt that there will be much need to change the basic mechanisms used in the rules.

Redcoats and Natives (Tarred and Featherstoned) – First draft

The first draft of these rules has now been written and await play-testing.

They are very similar to RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES, but because they deal with an era when there were fewer weapon types, they are shorter and simpler.

I hope to play-test them later this week. In the meantime, to access a copy, go to RED HEX WARGAMES and follow the simple instructions.

Redcoats and Natives (Tarred and Featherstoned) – First draft

Having developed RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES (TARRED AND FEATHERSTONED) to a state where I am happy playing wargames with them, and, being in need of a bit of a break for World War 2, I have now turned my attention to REDCOATS AND NATIVES – my colonial wargames rules – and given them the same Tarr and Featherstone treatment.

This should not present me with too many problems as REDCOATS AND NATIVES shares a similar ‘architecture’ (i.e. it uses very similar mechanisms) the RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES, and I have learned a lot from developing RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES (TARRED AND FEATHERSTONED).

I hope to get a working draft written today, and be able to begin play-testing sometime next week.