Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wargamers and Tactics: Everyone Charge! vs. Real World Tactics

About a month or so ago an observation became forefront in my mind and I wanted to post something about it.  After a game I ran for the group, I noticed no one bothered to follow the examples of the tactics I had provided them before the game.  It was a skirmish level WWII game.  Each side had either 3 or 4 squads each plus some support units.  One side was attacking and the other defending. I had told the attacking side that they should work together i.e. covering their approaches, mutual fire support, use SMOKE! and stuff like that.  The defenders were coached on using their machines guns to overlap their fire zones, hold back a squad or fire team to plug a hole and so on.  Neither side really paid attention.  The defenders went about their task of setting up and threw everyone on the firing line, the machine guns had poor lanes of fire mostly being blocked by obstacles.  The attackers, once they started, ran full speed into the waiting fire of the defenders only to get decimated! The one fire team that made it to the defensive line and past the defenders was able to catch an objective but it wasn't enough to win the battle. Had the defenders placed someone in reserve that fire team wouldn't have made it.  I've noticed this same behavior at conventions as well.
This made me think about how wargamers play a game vs. what the real world tactics would be for a given situation, whether that's a skirmish game or Corp level game.

I'm not a strategist and was unable to serve in the military so I am by no means an expert on tactics of any sort but through reading books and studying I've attempted to learn what tactics were used in the periods I game.  I know I've succumb to the idea of, "well I have this unit of heavy cavalry lets charge that totally unmolested guard unit of infantry!" Which usually turns out badly for me.
Is there an underlying thought that these are just little men on bases and they have no real world impact if they all die to the man?  Does it matter to Joe Gamer that he is using the same battle plan whether its ancients or modern regardless of the scenario/battle he has decided to play.
In our games don't we try to emulate the type of warfare that fascinates us? After all of our preparation, we present the scenario and then someone runs the troops right up the middle into close combat and the game becomes unwinnable for that side.  We've all witnessed this and have probably done it ourselves.  I realize that these questions are not new and are multi-layered and the answers will vary widely.

I will start with the my first question "these are just little men on bases."  This is true! They are just little men on bases and the fact that they lose 80% of their unit strength in a given day does not matter in the real world.  Unless we are playing a campaign game then there's some sort of ramification to our actions as players.  Other than that we don't care about them.

The 2nd question about Joe Gamer using the same battle plan regardless of era he/she is playing.  I find this true as well only because I've fallen victim of it.  Some years ago there was a gentleman who ran a lot of Napoleonic games here in Portland.  So I got use to lining my units up shoulder to shoulder, sort of speak, and marching across the battlefield.  Well one day I sat down with a different group of friends to play Advanced Squad Leader and I did the same thing with the counters for my troops. I lined them all up shoulder to shoulder.  My opponent looked at me and said, "Boy you have been playing a lot of Napoleonic games."  That moment brought into focus a mentality of playing that I hadn't realized. Since then I tried to understand how particular armies fought in the time periods that interested me and hopefully bring that about in my playing and my scenario design.

My 3rd thought about the amount of time and effort we devote to our hobby to make the shields, uniforms, study the history, find a descent set of rules and so on.  I know I devote a lot of time to building armies and to studying the history of that particular time period and creating scenarios to allow others to enjoy our work.  Now its game time when you explain to a player that he/she better not charge the cavalry into the  pike wall of infantry on the first move because it will not go well and that they should spend a few turns softening up the infantry with bow fire etc. On the first move they charge and then look at you completely dumbfounded that their cavalry was routed.  The defense they use usually falls on the "rules aren't historical" because of some obscure fact they once read (which is an exception to what normally happens) or that you aren't giving the correct bonuses to their units and so on.  We've all heard these arguments. So who's fault is it? The players for not paying attention to the GM about what not to do and what you should do.

In conclusion as I reread this piece I realize that it is not as comprehensive as I would like but I hope it conveys my thoughts adequately.  I am going to venture a hypothesis that most gamers are playing for the enjoyment and not so much about the realism the game provides.  I say this based on my observations and absolutely no hard evidence.  So I throw it out there to the rest of the internet, what do you think?   


  1. Good thought, Victor.

    1) Wargamers vary in why they are in our hobby, and that includes how they approach playing the game. Some are simulationists but that was much more common back in the 70's and 80's. Some seek to recreate historical tactics etc. Most just ant a colorful, enjoyable game BASED upon the era. Convention settings exacerbate the "game" mentality for sure, especially when players are using unfamiliar rules.

    2) Most of us would make lousy military officers

    3) When professionals play a "wargame" in a professional context, they approach it in quite a different fashion that hobbyists!

    4) They are just game markers to us. Morale rules aside, there are no deaths, no maimed bodies, amputated limbs, slow, agonizing deaths from perforated intestines, PTSD, fear, widows/orphans, etc. Thank goodness for that, of course, but it is huge difference between any simulation or game and the Real Thing.

    5 Campaigns definitely help players avoid the "no tommorrow" syndrome; one of their major advantages. It also tends to make us much more invested in ehe game outomes, for better... or worse!

    There was a great article in ? Don Featherstone's"The Wargamer' Newsletter" some 40 years ago, half jokingly proposing that figures that were killed be smashed by a hammer to give proper feeling of loss! Another, in the same publication, suggested naming each figure (back when figure removal and single figure basing were the norm, and keeping a record of their service, wounds, etc., including promotion to the Guard! This approach is still viable with rules like Dux Bellorum, Lion Rampant, Crossfire, etc.

    1. Peter I always value your insights and guidance. If the figures didn't cost so damn much I might try the hammer thing. :-)

  2. It probably isn't possible to save us wargamers from ourselves. As a solo gamer I don't see too much "line 'em up and charge" (honest!) but I've heard plenty about it.

    I suppose that you can take some comfort from the idea that most rules at least start from the point where they should reflect historical tactics. Some writers take this to excess and convert a game into a stock-count. (Yes, I know logistics is key, but nobody said it was fun!) Other sets lean too far towards the "it has to be a fun game so we'll drop the historical accuracy nonsense and don't the figures look kewl?" end of the spectrum.

    There are others that help to push us towards sensible tactics. In my opinion (humble or otherwise) these tend to be the ones that attempt to limit our omniscience by making activation uncertain, so you really, REALLY want keep a reserve just in case. I'm thinking in particular of the Piquet and Too Fat Lardies stables, but there are others. It's not everybody's cup of tea. Some people heartily dislike IGOUGO, others claim it's the one true faith. Sorry, the One True Faith.

    So if your opponent insists on decorating your pikes with his shock cavalry, or strolling across a bocage-surrounded field in Normandy, then I can only hope he (to be deliberately sexist) might still enjoy the game enough to learn from his excess of exuberance. He might even pick up a book and try to figure out what actually used to work, and how he can attempt that in a given rules set.

    I know, for I was that soldier boy (fade out to final chord)

    1. Thank you for your reply. I like the randomness of activation simply because you don't know when you will move etc... but I have one guy in our group who hates it. He suffers through it when I run a Piquet or Two Fat Lardies game. :-)
      Maybe I care too much about everyone having fun and not being disappointed by the time they have spent at my table playing a game.

  3. Is it primarily a game about fun and pretty toys, competition and winning or gaining period tactical insight with some fun and competition?

    Knowing the attitudes of participants helps determine the kind of game and rules selected.