The 200 Foot General

This is the third post on my Operational Research driven wargame rules (and it’s probably about time that I came up with a catchy name for them, ideas in the comments section most welcome).

One of the most unrealistic things I find in most commercial wargames that I have read or played is that it is very easy for players to change their plans and give new orders to their troops every turn. This is so common that there’s even a name for it, the 200ft General.

What is the Problem?

The concept being that the player is like a General with perfect perception and control of his troops, and he can react to things that they aren’t yet aware of because the player can see the models on the table.

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from the Operational Research that demonstrate why this is a problem.

“a detailed, well-rehearsed plan blocks acceptance of the quick orders rattled out over the radio ten minutes before an attack starts. This mix of friction and mental block can be seen to play a part in nearly half of all mission failures.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

“complicated plans were much more likely to fail.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

So this gives a constraint to the game design. A successful OR driven wargame will ensure that it isn’t easy to change orders and that the more complicated a plan is the more likely it will be to fail.

Potential Solutions

This isn’t a new problem, many wargame designers have grappled with it over the decades that wargaming has been popular. Lots of games have mechanisms of one sort or another to counteract this, ranging from hidden movement and deployment through to complex activation systems. All of these have problems, but at least they’re trying to solve the core problem of limiting player decisions to those that are reasonable for a commander on the ground.

  • Hidden movement & Deployment. This is a very good solution, and one that lots of games try to implement. It has difficulties in that you either need to trust the other player or have an umpire. Failing that some pre-game organisation to produce maps that can be annotated helps. It tends not to be used for competition wargames.
  • Written Orders. This is what real armies do, and so far as I’m aware only one commercial game has attempted this (Spearhead). It slows down the game, or increases setup time. Possibly producing a pro-forma might speed things up.
  • Unit activations. This seems to be common in popular rules. The actual mechanisms vary considerably, but the gist of it is that as a player you cannot be sure whether or not particular units will be activated. About all you can be sure of is that you cannot move your entire army. A good example of this is the DBA PIP system. A general gets 1d6 unit activations each turn.

I think that a good solution would be streamlined and easy to implement by players. Something like this is likely to have a major impact on gameplay speed, and we’re looking for ‘fast’ as a default setting. Each game turn needs to take 5-10 minutes to run through so that a whole game (including setup) can happen in about 2 hours.

Do you have any other potential solutions to this problem?

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About Author:

James has a keen interest in military history, backed with experience as a TA reservist and a 17th century re-enactor. He has designed and run several face to face social games and is the editor of MilMud, the journal of the CLWG game design group. He is currently working on a book on the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution.

2 thoughts on “The 200 Foot General

  1. Kriegsspiel (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/16957/kriegsspiel) uses a double blind system with an umpire. Problems are you need 3 maps, 2 for the players, who can see only what they know, and one for the umpire who can see both players forces. Orders are written out and given to the umpire who uses rules to deliver messages to other commanders based upon distance at preset times, and gms the narrative for the players. The GM/ Umpire has a heavy task managing this info but has a fun time running it, players get to concentrate on strategy and tactics. This type of battleship double blind game would probably be better applied to the computer nowadays and not to a tabletop which would speed up gameplay, calculations etc.

    Have a look at HistWar and Scourge of War multiplayer (http://www.sowmp.com/gcm) both on PC to see how this works. Scourge of War even has orders given by courier with delays built in before delivery. Multiplayer really adds a great dimension to the games.

    There is no easy way of building in a fix, simple solutions like card/dice activation work but leave out the surprise of ambushes etc. Games like Napoleons Triumph (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/18098/napoleons-triumph) and Fields of Despair (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/153728/fields-despair-france-1914-1918) use blocks that are turned away from your opponent so even though he can see them he dosent know what strength they are. Fields of Despair (http://www.gmtgames.com/p-473-fields-of-despair.aspx) actually adds on this by having decoy blocks which allow you to place troops out in front of your opponent and by stacking them it bluffs him into seeing something which isn’t there.

    1. Brett,

      thanks for commenting. I’ve run double blind affairs, they’re fun, but you need two sets of kit and they take a fair time to play. I’m seriously thinking of a set of written orders and also maps with routes and deployed forces drawn on them in the prep phase at the start of the game.

      I’ve played some of the block games too. They work to an extent, especially the ones with the dummy counters in them. I’ll check out some of the links though, thanks for suggesting them. 

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