Through Fire & Fog – An Essay on Chaos, Control & Player Agency (Part the First)

One of the big complaints about tabletop (historical miniatures) wargaming is that by definition it does a lousy job of duplicating command and control not to mention the fog of war. It’s Clausewitz’s vaunted “friction,” if you will, and the criticism is not without merit. Tabletop gaming is eye-candy gaming, in that a VERY big draw is the colorful spectacle of drop dead gorgeous figures painted in a cavalcade of colors from the age of chivalry, Napoleon and so on. Having them disappear from the table to suggest that the player is neither all knowing, nor all controlling, of his environment pretty well defeats the purpose of playing with toy soldiers. In this respect, the digital and even the cardboard counter world seems to have a very profound advantage. Obviously PC gaming with its code driven AI can remove from view those enemy or friendly units and pieces of real estate the player commander cannot see. Even cardboard and paper map games, such as the old double blind SPI game The Franco-Prussian War can have counters flipped to their unmarked side and use Dummy chits.

Tabletop gaming? Not so much. . . or so many people thought.

What happened?

Eventually, tabletop rules emerged that proposed to easily and quickly replicate entire battles, even big ones such as the Napoleonic contest of Wagram (5 – 6 July 1809). This was accomplished in part by moving the traditional player’s position up to the level of a corps commander, and have him push around cavalry and infantry units that represented a brigade and nothing lower. This gave the player less units to deal with and this in turn meant that less time per turn was expanded, which resulted in more turns per sitting more often than not. Also, given that there were no small units such as battalions to manage any more, the traditional and time intensive detail associated with this level of play could be excluded or subsumed by simple die roll modifiers (or DRMs).

Using the Foreward of my own rules as in example, what was discovered was . . .

Many battalion level miniature rules of the Napoleonic era designate the player as a corps commander, yet mandate he maneuver and fight with individual battalions and skirmish companies. Thus, he directly assumes control at every level of command within his corps, from captain to lieutenant general. Yet as player and corps commander he never experiences the intense stress of the young major with musket balls whizzing around his ears. As player and corps commander his orders are always understood since he represents both the sending and the receiving headquarters. And as player and corps commander he can simply look across the gaming table and acquire more information than any lieutenant colonel in combat could ever have dreamed of. In short, this player and corps commander is likely to see far fewer mistakes within his command than actually occurred while in combat where stress was high, coordination problematic and accurate battlefield information rare.

To properly replicate history the player needed to lose a degree of control over his units, and moving his command away from battalions did so in part because it denied him access to that level of battle management. From there it was a relatively easy consideration to further expand historical reality by excluding gamers from even more control and battlefield knowledge. The question was how, and conveniently, around the 1990’s two rules sets appeared to nurture the theory into a workable process. These were Napoleon’s Battles by the late Bob Coggins and Craig Taylor, published by Avalon Hill, and Fire & Fury, a rule set for the American Civil War (ACW) by Richard Hasenauer. Many more exist today including my own Napoleonic set and the exceptional Grande Armee rules by Sam Mustafe.

The solutions devised came from two directions, both deceptively simple, and used existing rules rather than creating new ones, all the while ensuring the visual spectacle of miniatures remained unmolested and safe. First, fire combat and melee results were made less predictable. There were no new processes, simply an increase in the swing of the numbers that determined results. Again from the Foreward of my own rules . . .

. . . while the player is still a corps commander, he controls very little below the brigade level. Instead the fire combat and melee mechanisms acknowledge that at brigade and below there are brigadiers and colonels and majors making decisions on the player’s behalf. And since these notional officers have far more stress to deal with than the player, experience misunderstood or garbled instructions and know nothing about the battle outside what they can see from their own little smoke covered piece of turf, sometimes they make mistakes. Like BOFF (Basic Original Fire & Fury), this makes Age of Eagles much less predictable than other systems. So it was with actual combat and such an environment greatly rewards players who are adept both at planning ahead and at reacting to the unexpected.

As an example, most games consider getting hit in the flank to be near automatic defeat with disastrous results. One need only recall John Colborne’s British 1st Brigade slaughtered by a flank attack of the French Vistula Lancers and 2d Hussars at Albuera (16th May, 1811) as evidence. A freak storm and undulating ground were the culprits and only one battalion out of four made it to square before the brigade was hit. Out of 1648 men in the other three battalions, 1248 men and six regimental colors were lost. The 3d Regiment of Foot (the Buffs) lost 85% of its strength. Few realize, however, the reason this fight is so well remembered is that such things were so rare. Usually, on the scene officers were able to see the punch coming and take countermeasures. Thus despite a hefty DRM penalizing the defender for getting hit in the flank, such catastrophes rarely happen due to the increased die roll unpredictability. In fact, Napoleon’s Battles actually excluded flanks and their impact from the rules set altogether.

The second more and more profound (in my opinion) mechanism, was an incursion into the sanctity of one of the most inviolable rules of wargames – the Movement Rate. Until games like Fire & Fury, movement for wargame units was locked. Every unit, pewter or cardboard, had a guaranteed distance it could move each turn depending upon its current state. With Fire & Fury there was no guarantee that even a fresh and untouched unit across open ground could move its full distance, half distance or even at all. This was done by use of a table that matched a die roll with the ability to move. The table had two columns, one for units in Good Order, another for those in Disorder with units in the latter category finding die rolls less supportive of recovery and movement. In fact die rolls for some Disordered units could well see the formation in retreat or rout.

There were DRMs of course, that could both add to the die roll or subtract from it. The proximity of friendly commanders or retaining a Fresh combat status could add several points to a movement die roll. Conversely, a combat status of Spent, or cavalry charging while Winded could deduct from the die roll. Combat status such as Fresh, Worn or Spent were determined by the number of figures or stands lost due to combat, representing not only casualties but fatigue given a growing loss count was indicative of fighting longer and soldiers tiring. And in a final wrinkle, units were designated Crack, Veteran or Green for training and experience. Green units needed far less losses to move from Fresh to Spent status than a Crack unit. It all meant that even the healthiest and best of units were not guaranteed to move, while the longer a formation remained fighting, the less chance any movement would happen grew. And to top it off, Green units would reach this gate far quicker than Crack brigades.

Is this reality? As a retired colonel, my own experience not only says “yes,” but “Hell, yes!” History is filled with examples that prove Feldmarschal von Moltke’s dictum than no plan, however well-conceived, ever survives contact with the enemy. At the battle of Hohenlinden (3 December 1800), an entire Austrian column halted due to some mysterious firing on its left flank. Investigation showed it to be friendlies from another Austrian column. At the battle of Oudenarde (11 July 1708), an opportunity to defeat Marlborough’s army crossing a river failed because a message to a French commander ordering him to advance (regardless of the damp soil) was never delivered. The messenger, it seems was shot in transit and neither sender nor receiver became aware of the unfortunate casualty. And of course, who can forget the noble 600 at the battle of Balaclava (24 October 1854).

It was a results oriented solution as opposed to a process oriented solution. While electrons and cardboard sought to deny the player information that he needed for control, tabletop games generally left the information in place but denied the player the ability to effectively use it. The only questions remaining was how the gaming community would react, and where we go from here.

Come back next week for Part 2.

Headline Image Credit: Dean Emmerson, Maine Wargamers


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