The End at Dien Bien Phu

May 7, 2014–At 10:20 AM on May 7, 1954 (10:20 PM of May 6 on the U.S. east coast), the Frenchman leading all forces in Laos asked the general commanding the north of Indochina to give him immediate notice if there were a “grave event” concerning Dien Bien Phu. The Laotian commander, Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, was clearly thinking that he should warn the troops sent to effect an overland rescue of the entrenched camp that they should get out of the way. Tonkin theater commander Major General Rene Cogny advised De Crevecoeur a few hours later that if the threatened event occurred he would have French radios broadcast the phrase “The fruit are ripe.”

In gaming there are only a few boardgames which deal with the Franco-Vietnamese war, and even fewer that concern Dien Bien Phu itself. The ones that do uniformly confirm the French did not have a chance at that battle, indicating the dubious strategy of selecting that high mountain valley for the scene of a major encounter.

That was true of my game as well. Around the time I first wrote my book on Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture , I also designed a boardgame on the battle. For those familiar with the gaming of that era, it was a “mini-monster” design with a main board depicting the valley center and French strongpoints, plus a strategic board of the region surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The strategic/tactical split followed the concept of the Avalon Hill Roman era siege game Alesia. Using the strategic board forces could maneuver to the battle, the French in Laos could try and rescue the camp, and the French air force could attempt to reduce the scale of Viet Minh supply. French forces were modeled in companies, with breakdowns to platoons; the Viet Minh were at the battalion-level, with breakdowns to companies. It was a highly detailed boardgame and showed very well the dynamics of the strongpoint battle. Viet Minh forces sustained tremendous losses, but the French could not win.

What the generals learn–or do not learn– from history could fill books. Politicians too. Let’s just hope we’re not seeing this lesson repeated today.

House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!

Panzerkrieg in Play

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

March 22, 2014–A session of the boardgame Panzerkrieg in progress, this general illustration shows the board overall. Once we master the posting problem there will be some close-ups that illustrate the Kharkov and Mius sectors as well. The picture appears, and the set will eventually be posted as a product in “Downloadable.” Enjoy!

Games: On to France ’40

March 17, 2014–Time to leap ahead a century and more. I just wanted to put in a word about the next project for you gamers out there. Some of you will know that Against the Odds Magazine is setting up to do one of its “Four Roads” projects in which four different designers present their alternative visions of the same subject, in this case Germany’s 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. I’m among that group. Here are my preliminary thoughts.

It seems to me that the challenge in this subject, from a design point of view, arises not so much from the events of the German invasion as from the time preceding it, an epoch the French know as “the Hollow Years.” So what I am going to try and accomplish is to meld a pre-war arms race and military buildup, which will include an intelligence element, with a simple but classical simulation of the war itself.

Players will have military budgets and be able to spend them on the forces they most desire to build. Certain capabilities will become available only with the passage of time. Budget levels will be based on the historical but influenced by events and intelligence developments. In addition to forces, players will accumulate “Command” and “Intelligence” points they will be able to use when the time comes. The timescale will shift as the sides draw closer to war, and as they enter the war force building will stop and the players will have to utilize what forces they have. In this fashion the players will do the best they can within their available resources to optimize forces for the coming conflict. These mechanics will also ensure that every game develops differently.

Unit representation will be at the Army and Corps level. The combat system will be simple and classical, somewhat akin to what I used in Bodyguard/Overlord but with some wonderful new elements. This system dispenses with the usual combat results table in favor of a dice-based mechanism.

The board will take in France down to Paris and west to the Channel Coast, the Low Countries, and the eastern part of Germany. As in Leipzig it will be an area map with terrain features.

Bear with me while I put this game through design testing.


February 23, 2014– And now for something completely different. Looking over the new, Six Angles edition of the game Panzerkrieg it came to me that we can use the components to craft a fresh game variant. Masahiro Yamazaki has added “Objective” pieces to the countermix. Fans of the game will know that most of its scenarios postulate one of the players “To Win,” and to do so by means of capturing a number of named objective hexes. Mas has made this more visual with the Objective counters.

But the same pieces can be purposed differently. I’ve compiled a variant that inserts Intelligence Deception. Players designate their Objectives as before– but some of the Objectives can be phony ones! This way the opponent may work to defend cities the player is not really interested in.

The Panzerkrieg variant is a product among those in the “Downloadable” section of this website. Hop over there and check it out!

The Wargame Laboratory

February 17, 2014– Several years ago, for my book Normandy Crucible  I chose to make use of a boardgame as a kind of historical laboratory. I took an existing game on the Normandy campaign, SPI’s Cobra, done by Brad Hessel many years back, to generate virtual data on the actual campaign. (I’ll say something in a moment about how that went.) The other day, while researching a topic from World War II in the Pacific, I was delighted to encounter another instance of someone who’d done the same thing. This was an honors thesis in history done at Ohio State nearly a decade ago. There’s not enough to call this a trend, but clearly the notion is out there, so I thought I would say something about best practices.

A little more detail on the Normandy Crucible experiment: I set out to explore the contours of the German defense of the hedgerow country following the D-Day invasion in June 1944. I wanted to see if a different combination of German strategic approach and/or defensive tactics might have worked better and, in particular, how these factors impacted on the size of the force the Germans would succeed in withdrawing from Normandy once they began their retreat. To accomplish this I first took the Cobra game and brought it up to date. When it was published in the late 70s we knew very little of the Allied intelligence advantages with ULTRA, the design itself had certain awkward elements, and now we have much better historical data on German replacements and reinforcements. All these things were factored into the game.

To effectuate the laboratory schema, I chose a set of parameters–some strategies, some tactics, some were terrain-based defense emphases. Each of these became a scenario. Then the game was played numerous times with extensive data recorded, ending with the number of German troops who escaped the debacle. The game was played solitaire and with various opponents.  Every scenario was played multiple times. I ended up with a very interesting collection of insights.

In our other example, in 2005 Mark Gribbell at Ohio State used the 1992 editions of the Avalon Hill games Midway and Guadalcanal and modified them to replay the battles of the Philippine Sea (June 1944) and Leyte Gulf (October 1944). Gribbell asked the question of whether the Japanese, had they had better pilots at that time in the Pacific war, could have done better at these decisive naval battles. We don’t know enough about his assumptions or data to judge his actual scenarios, but his conclusions were that the outcomes would still have been Japanese defeats although the Americans would have suffered somewhat higher losses. To judge from the honors thesis, the battles were replayed just a few times.

So, best practices? In my view the first key element is to ensure that the simulation platform actually has the capacity to answer the questions posed. In both of these examples an original boardgame (or games) were modified to accommodate the experiment. There is not sufficient information to describe the actual modifications made in the Pacific war laboratory, but in the Normandy case I am confident the game update provided exactly the platform required.

The second key element is to ensure the questions are the right ones. For Normandy, the ability of German forces to withdraw was directly measurable by the game. Secondary questions, such as the effect of commencing the retreat at different moments in the history, was also observable. In the Pacific war case, losses were a surrogate measure for the impact of pilot quality, but there the connection is less clear. For example, what about the effect of better Japanese aircraft, along with or apart from, pilots? Gribbell himself suggests something of this with a related conclusion he draws–that the American use of the F-6F “Hellcat” aircraft was a key factor in Japanese losses.

Finally, it is very important to ensure that there are enough iterations of the scenario to collect a broad range of data. This takes better account of the effect of different player strategies and tactics, as well as for the element of chance.

In my case one other lesson of this exercise was that some readers and historians are not yet ready to accept the simulation as a valid tool for historical analysis. In the text of Normandy Crucible I made some use of the simulation laboratory results, but I had originally done more. Comments from readers and editors encouraged me to extract most of this material and move it to an appendix, and some items I had to drop altogether. The simulation laboratory has yet to come into its own.

Panzerkrieg Rules Arrive!

February 8, 2014– Masahiro Yamazaki has just sent his translation of the rules and scenario sheets for Panzerkrieg. I’ll be checking them against the originals for any discrepancies, but if there are any you’ll easily be able to download updated versions later. In the meantime you can play the game in its new edition.

At this point English versions of the charts and tables are still outstanding but they’ll be coming along soon. Those of you with earlier editions can simply use the currently existing versions during this interval.

The new material looks very nice and has already given me an idea for a game variant rule that will put some strategic intelligence flavor into the game.


Overheard on Amtrak: A Gaming Story

February 4, 2014– If you’re a boardgamer who looks askance at the first-person-shooter variety of videogames, here’s some grist for your mill. Of course lots of folks love videogames, and the first-person-shooter variety is a strong category in that field, so if that’s your passion please excuse this. My take is that of a longtime boardgame designer who was there when computer games first got started, solicited our help, then left us in the dust.

Anyway the story is this: a few years ago I was on my way to take care of chores in New York. I prefer Amtrak for these periodic business trips. The train is more comfortable, you can walk around, and it leaves you in the heart of The City, ready to go wherever you need to. So I’m on a Northeast Regional bound for a city I love, where I lived a long time. I read a book as the train barreled along. Sitting there I became conscious of the conversation from the twin-seat ahead of me. Two men were engaged in avid debate. I heard the words “axe” and “sword.” That got my attention pretty well.

Some nefarious plot? I worried briefly but it quickly became clear the two men were game designers, and their purpose was to figure out what weapons to put into the first-person-shooter they were crafting. The conversation was quite interesting. Heft of the axe and sword, length and edge-type of the latter, single- or double-bit for the axe, type of metal, weight–all were things they considered. What struck me in particular was their focus on the visual impact of the various weapons configurations. They were clearly concentrating on a game design issue.

The purloined conversation got me to thinking. Plenty of gamers have asked me over the years why I did not move into computer games. Actually a few of my designs–Third Reich and Kanev are two–have appeared in computerized versions, though the games (and even the computer platforms which ran them) no longer exist. But I never made the crossover myself. At first I thought I would, but that I needed to wait–the early platforms were very restricted in terms of core memory. For a long time the memory requirements for representing a mapboard effectively consumed the machine’s capacity leaving little for the game itself. As a designer my preference has always been to innovate systems that mimic large-scale processes in the real world, requiring pretty sophisticated code. But I anticipated that CPU memory capacities would someday reach the level required for both board and design, plus, of course, pieces. In any case, focusing my design efforts on image (as my Amtrak friends were doing) rather than content, as in the modeling of processes, was not something I wanted to do.

That evolution of computers happened–but so did something else. The early electronic games were very much like the boardgames. But as computers improved, the action game, granddaddy of the first-person-shooter, eclipsed the old-style game. The charm of putting the person into the game–as character (in role-playing), as ball player, as shooter, as action figure–was irresistible. The personal element made computer games the behemoth they are today. Even large-scale games today, as in the massive online game, are permutations of single person action. My two friends on Amtrak were onto something.

But I did–and still do–prefer to model processes, not individual action, whether cumulative or not. I’ve been pleased that old-style electronic games have survived, even as a niche in the computerized milieu, and also that computers have come around far enough to develop game-assist programs (like VASSAL) that improve the practicality of boardgames. And developing trends may be moving in the direction of  a more central role for boardgame-like computer games. Sales of first-person-shooter designs peaked in 2011 and have diminished since. Though these games still account for nearly a fourth of all electronic game sales, their dollar volume has decreased by more than a third. This suggests there is space developing for electronic wargames of the traditional kind, now in an environment when the platforms are fully capable of handling a sophisticated boardgame. Some of my old designer colleagues–Eric Lee Smith is an example–have chosen to go straight to electronics with new game companies. And games are being formatted to work on I-pads and I-phones. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

Boardgaming in the News

January 11, 2014–There’s a lot on my plate today, so just a short note.  Very occasionally the mainstream media features coverage of boardgames. This weekend is one such instance. Just so you’re aware, tomorrow’s Washington Post Magazine contains the article “War in A Box” by Jason Albert. The piece is a nice profile of Volko Ruhnke, an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency by trade, but a budding game designer with five titles under his belt. Ruhnke’s work puts a sophisticated simulation model around such subjects as the war in Afghanistan. He’s currently working on a Vietnam war game with co-designer Mark Herman, who some years ago brought us the very intricate Vietnam 1965-1975. The article also contains a bit on the World Boardgame Championships show. If you’re a gamer you’ll be interested to see this essay. 


January 4, 2014–It’s always great to see an old friend. Today it’s Panzerkrieg, a game I designed back in the mid-70s, known by its present name since 1978, when Operational Studies Group put out my full edition. Last year the Japanese publisher Six Angles approached me with the suggestion that we collaborate on a fresh version of this classic boardgame. I agreed. The result arrived with yesterday’s mail so that I can now affirm that the new Panzerkrieg is out, and available. It’s listed that way on the “Games” section of the website, with a link to Six Angles.

Those of you familiar with the game will want to know what we have so here goes. The new edition features a re-drawn four-color mapboard that is quite attractive. The terrain feel is better because of the move from three- to four-color, the substitution of symbols for the colored river-crossing hexes in the old edition, and the replacement of the old yellow scenario start-lines with updated symbols.  Panzerkrieg’s former study folder has been replaced by scenario cards. All eight original scenarios are included, and there is a new introductory scenario, “The Manstein Alternative.”

The counter art is spectacular. Masahiro Yamazaki of Six Angles has reworked the pieces (500 on two-and-a-half sheets). Leaders have portraits. There are new color distinctions between mobile units (armor and mechanized) and infantry on both sides, nicely done air units, Minor Allies with their own flavor, and more.

Rules will be familiar, though here, too, we have adapted some elements of more recent editions of the game. These include the ability to group mobile units into panzer corps or tank armies, setting of “Objectives,” specialized anti-tank units, and more. The classic elements of the design, with its Stalemates and Breakthroughs, the Bridgeheads across major rivers, the use of Reserves and of Leaders, plus airpower, remain the same. Six Angles published the game in Japanese translation but an English version of the rules, tables, and charts will become available in the next few weeks.

I will be posting Designer’s Notes for the game as an item on the “Downloadable” section of the site. I’m also considering working up a new scenario as additional value added. Masahiro did a fine job. Panzerkrieg is back. Welcome old friend!