Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Fighting Formations preview #1: Some background

Readers who know me from the days of yore will remember the effort I put into designing a viable model of operational command and control for WW2 tabletopping. At the same time, regular readers should be only too aware that I regard Chad Jensen's Combat Commander as second only to Courtney Allen's classic Up Front as an exemplary gaming treatment of these matters, albeit both on a smaller scale (and that's a very close second, which has as much to do with accidents of history and biography as it does with matters of absolute quality).

Just to remind readers:- Chad's Combat Commander has enjoyed remarkable success in the past 2½ years:
  • Two boxed core games - CC:E and CC:P (the first already in reprint).
  • A boxed system expansion - CC:M.
  • Two zip-locked battle pack expansions - BP1: Paratroopers and BP2: Stalingrad.
  • The 3rd of the planned battle pack series - BP3: Normandy - sprinted through GMT's P500 system last April in record time.
  • A similarly continuous stream of new scenarios, maps and counters appearing in C3i magazine.
Add a fanbase avid to see the CC experience brought to bear on as wide a range of modern ground combat as the system can express and the market can bear, and there is every reason to imagine that Chad's first published design will be as enduring a feature of the gaming scene as its main competitor, Advanced Squad Leader.

Having hit the ground running then with Combat Commander, last November Chad proved himself no man to rest on his laurels when he unveiled Fighting Formations. Excited as other CC fans at this long-trailed news- and following the previews @CSW naturally enough, I came to realise that Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Infantry Division, 1942-43 is already a landmark game in the long years of my WW2 gamer geek: it's the first game whose semi-public final development and testing process I've been able to follow right from the start thanks to the wonders of the internet.

Tales of a youthful tinkerer
My own first homebrew aside, the first WW2 ruleset I ever used was the venerable WRG Wargames Rules - Armour and Infantry 1925 - 1950, published in 1973 (cover of the latest edition left). My brother, our friends and I had a lot of fun with these rules. Even so, there were key limitations to these rules which were to set the agenda for my thoughts about WW2 games design for years to come.

Leaving aside technical aspects- eg. the rules for armour and armour penetration, what I liked least about the WRG rules was their treatment of morale and of command and control. The latter was handled simply I'll admit: you gave your units tactical orders, eg. 'Take that hill', and off you went. I remember the problems with this being manifold although precise details are subject to the vagaries of 3 decades' memory. The most important that I can recall are:
  • There was no definition of what constituted the fulfillment of any given order; which was important because the degree of that fulfillment was an aspect of morale.
  • There were fiddly rules, equally open to interpretation, whose purpose was to make players move their units according to those units' orders, and not according to the players' overview; ie. they were attempting to enforce 'point of view'.
  • Enforcing these rules involved more morale penalties, so that the degree of 'wiggle room' was very unsatisfactory.
Morale I found similarly unsatisfactory. Unfortunately the details are vaguer still, but I think I can fairly say that the problem was that the rules were a hodge-podge of unit morale and formation cohesion.

Although I didn't realise it at the time, I was experiencing the limitations of what I can only call 'design for form or cause', as opposed to the 'design for effect' with which I later became familiar through Squad Leader, Up Front and Champions. Thanks to those games I was equipped with both a better working model of battlefield morale- one in which morale was the primary target of enemy fire and not some secondary element with all the appearance of an afterthought; and with a superior design method: design for effect.

My next 'big idea' was inspired by an oft-remembered Western Desert microarmour game I'd witnessed during my school days, on a Sunday outing to what I can only imagine was the same SESWC who run Claymore. What had most impressed me was the sheer dynamism of the game: in which the British armour had surged towards the German lines; been repulsed and fallen back; then regrouped and advanced for a second try. This stood in stark contrast to our games, in which in our units would creep slowly across the tabletop; and in which pulling back (voluntarily or otherwise) then regrouping to try again just never happened.

The final piece of the puzzle was something I picked up from a magazine article about Napoleonic wargaming: the idea of turns of different lengths according to what was actually happening in the turn. I was soon working up a design based on the concept of 'command cycles' exercised through a communications network whose linkages could be open or closed according to fortune: the higher the level of a given HQ, the greater the scope of a bound determined by its command; and the longer it would take for that HQ to reactivate. HQs' command levels were given numerical values to drive the game's clock, and to determine reactions: you could react to enemy action with HQ's whose command levels were less than that of the HQ whose activation opened the bound.

The design suffered from many weaknesses, not the least of which was that it required book-keeping too excessive to be really practical. And it was never completed. Still, it was tested a couple of times, and it worked. More than that, by abandoning any attempt artificially to force players into their POV, it solved the problem (quite neatly IMO):
  • If you wanted to make a move in response to enemy forces strictly out of sight of your own units, you could.
  • If your move was at a low command level, then it would develop so slowly that your opponent would have plenty of time to react.
  • And if your move was at a command level sufficiently high to be carried out in a single bound, then:
  1. The higher level formation HQ required to make the move viable made the action quite authentic really.
  2. You might have to wait a bit before your formation was ready, so that the situation might've changed by the time you were ready to move.
  3. The greater scope of your bound similarly increased the scope of your opponent's reaction(s), so that your move might again be essentially redundant.
Fanatic Up Front player as I then was, it wasn't long before I realised that the book-keeping problem could be solved with the use of cards. And that was where things stood through the 90's and beyond, until I discovered Memoir'44 and Combat Commander, with results that will be well known to regular readers.

That's it for now. More to follow ASAP. ;)

- Fighting Formations preview #2: The frakkin' game!

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