Gamers’ Corner: Set Europe Ablaze

September 2, 2014–Just a quick note! Some of you will know that Against the Odds magazine has selected my Western European  (WW2) Resistance game Set Europe Ablaze as their “annual” issue game for this year. The game is a two-player simulation of the partisan war against German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Anyway, while ATO completes its playtesting and starts to put the game itself into production, I’ve taken time to craft the historical articles that will accompany the publication. (Thus I’ve been only fleetingly on this website of late.) That work is now done.

ATO doesn’t have space for everything I did. Accordingly I lopped off the Bibliography I had prepared for the game and articles. In the next few days I am going to post that biblio as a product on this website. FYI.

Wargamers’ Corner: Cobra II

August 27, 2014–I’ve been asked several times now, in connection with  my book Normandy Crucible, about making available to gamers the modifications I made in the wargame Cobra for purposes of creating the “wargame laboratory” I used as part of the research for that book. Most recently that question was posed directly on this website by gamers William Barnett-Lewis and Sergeant Skip Franklin. As we pass the 70th anniversary date I wanted to post something about why I don’t feel comfortable doing that. But I’ll also describe my process–and alert gamers will be able to craft their own “house” versions of the modifications.

Fundamentally it’s a question of publication rights. When I worked on that book and I wanted to put together a lab apparatus, that was for my own research and the only question was a suitable vehicle. The Simulations Publications (SPI) game Cobra had the right qualifications: a suitable geographic scope, a good level of unit representation; and, at one map, a game that was not impossible to keep up and get out of the way so that it could be used in spurts on a long-term basis.

But as for publishing amendments to the game, I would not want to do that without reference to the rights holders, and that’s a more ambiguous situation. Brad Hessel is the designer of record, but the game had editions from SPI and TSR Hobbies both. Most of the SPI/TSR games’ rights today belong to Decision Games but some do not, having been covered by direct contract between the publishers and designers (for example, my games Monty’s D-Day, Warsaw Rising, and Kanev reverted after publication). The situation with Brad I don’t know about. I asked around a bit, but no one I know seems to have his current address so I was unable to clarify the rights situation.

Now, if a publisher comes to me and wants a new Normandy breakout & pursuit game, I’ll gladly incorporate the features I am about to discuss. But short of that you’ll have to bear with me.

OK. There were certain problems with the Hessel Cobra design. One was that the Falaise Pocket battle rarely occurred with the game since the German line simply disintegrated, the German armies were destroyed and the Allied pieces rushed for the map edge. There were several reasons for this:

(a) One was the time scale. The game had three-day turns. The historical period for the Falaise Pocket typically ran out before the game reached the “pocket” stage. Switching to two-day turns allowed the history more time to develop.

(b) Most important was the issue of the Combat Results Table (CRT). This was an odds ratio CRT–very common for that time–and required mathematical calculation of a strength ratio between attacker and defender. Not only is that very cumbersome, since the society has moved so far away from these kinds of routine math problems, but all the trouble didn’t seem to be worth it–the strength disparities between the two sides were such that the vast majority of combats were resolved on the top few columns of the CRT.

This also meant that the German player had very few possibilities for counterattack, because his forces were just too thin to generate decent odds.

A related issue was with terrain effects. The requirements of the Terrain Effects Chart (TEC) were typically to shift columns, inserting an element of asymmetry with the odds ratio calculation. I thought that gave the idea. Change the CRT to a differential calculation. Now the attacker simply compares his strength with the opponent and immediately derives the CRT column. The “0” differential occurs at 1-2. Columns increase to advantage (+1), then by 5s to +25, then to +50, +75, +85, and 99+. Below zero the splits are at disadvantage (-1), -5, and -10 or less. The CRT generates step losses for both sides. In keeping with the larger differentials at high levels of advantage I used more higher-level loss results (e.g. 1/3, __/4) on high columns.

The one mathematical calculation I required was for troops attacking across rivers, who are halved or reduced to one-third strength depending on whether the river is minor or major. In general I converted most game effects to column shifts in keeping with this procedure. (For example, instead of doubling a stack (division), in this game unit integrity conveys a column-shift advantage.)

(c) Players might want to experiment with ZOC rules, giving Allied units and German mobile forces (because all are motorized) ZOCs but none to German infantry. That opened the game up when I used it.

(d) At the time of the original game the existence of intelligence (ULTRA) was just becoming known, much less understood in any detail. A major element was to insert intelligence rules. I added both sigint and combat intelligence (interrogation of prisoners). The former depended on an ULTRA table on which the players rolled each turn. That allowed the player to neutralize the divisional integrity of a certain number of opposing stacks and pre-emptively exhaust the column shift advantage of a number of Headquarters. (I also added Allied HQs for Bradley and Monty in addition to Patton). With combat intelligence, for every three losses the previous turn the player could neutralize the integrity of an opposing division.


Some German capabilities (Tiger Battalions, Nebelwerfer Brigades) were never modeled in the game. I added counters for these and endowed them with column-shift capabilities.

On the Allied side the rules governing the “Cobra” air strike were both too restrictive and too loose–too restrictive because they did not permit the Allies to create an actual break in the lines by means of a saturation attack, and too loose in that the player could stage a “Cobra”-level air mission every turn if he wanted to. (The Allies actually managed two “Cobra” equivalents plus two attacks that were of the same type but smaller.) I inserted a radically different rule on air strike effects that widened the sector struck and had target units incur losses, temporarily disappear, and reappear afterwards next to a friendly headquarters. This afforded the opportunity to open an actual hole.

At the time this game appeared in the 1970s, our knowledge of the Allied order of arrival, funneling fresh combat divisions into Normandy, was well developed, but our knowledge of the German side was much less perfect. So I created a new German order of appearance with units (and even replacements) arriving according to the historical record.

Apart from anything else I think these changes resulted in greatly improved historicity in this game. You can try it at home.


D-Day in Wargames

June 6, 2014–It’s the seventieth anniversary of what my parents knew as one of the decisive moments of World War II, what my generation saw as “The Longest Day,” and what now seems to have become endowed with a certain historical magic. News clips of Prince Charles, with an entourage, walking across Pegasus Bridge at the village of Benouville in Normandy were striking. They headed toward the flatland where British paratroops landed from gliders to grab that same bridge from the hands of German occupiers. Interviews with British paras who had participated in the lightning strike on the nearby Merville coastal battery were equally impressive. As I pen this no doubt the commemorative festivities in Normandy are coming to their climax, with delegations from five countries plus thousands of spectators.

The big shows happen only at intervals–70th anniversary seems to be one–but in between there is much less attention devoted to these historical events, climactic as they may be. Boardgamers, I am proud to say, have figured among the most observant of the public. Whether because the Normandy invasion is so dramatic, because the history is so important, or simply because gamers enjoy a good fight, D-Day boardgames have long been a staple of the wargame genre. Having designed a couple of them myself–including one that featured Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery, I can attest to that.

So far as wargames are concerned it started a little more than a decade after the real events, when The Avalon Hill Game Company put out its title D-Day. That was a picture of the “invasion” writ large–the whole Western European coast with the Allies to choose where to stage their invasion and the Germans to fight for France and the Low Countries. Since then boardgames on the subject have taken one of three paths. Games like D-Day– Fortress Europa and others–give you a bird’s eye picture of the entire military theater of operations. Titles like Axis & Allies: D-Day or Atlantic Wall, or The Longest Day offer a view more ample than that of D-Day itself–they go on for weeks of equivalent real time and give you the full Normandy campaign, invasion through breakout. There are not so many games which present the hours of D-Day itself as the main event. In the 1980s I published Monty’s D-Day, a simulation of invasion day on the British-Canadian beaches, long out of print today though I hope to bring it back. In 2012 Against the Odds brought out the companion game to that one, Bradley’s D-Day, which includes the American side of the invasion and the beaches known as Omaha and Utah.

It’s difficult to generalize on the basis of these few titles and their approaches. Over the long arc of boardgaming history there have been many more titles on the subject, these are just some of the games with which I am familiar. On the basis of game experience, though, I’d say the Normandy invasion was a done deal. In the theater-wide games there is some capacity to defeat the invasion, though usually on the basis of unrealistic historical elements (such as freeing the player from Hitler’s constraints on using the German mobile forces). In the Normandy campaign games and the D-Day beach games, outcomes tend to be Allied victories barring a run of extraordinarily bad luck. The Allied advantage at the tip of the spear was just that big. When modeled in a simulation the real capability disparities give Allied players the advantage in the game.

No matter. None of the advantage issues are likely to dissuade gamers from returning to Normandy’s beaches for another “go” at Operation Overlord. D-Day is just that big, the questions that hang in the balance just that important. I daresay that this weekend there will be D-Day games going up for another spin on tables all across the land.

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.