Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Game Design #62: What Should the Commander Know?

Note - this applies more to historical games. Sci fi games you can do what you want - you have the magic of handwavium.

I was thinking about this when playing with my aeronef game. I think it is linked with these questions:    How many units?   What command level?  How much detail?

Knowing the answer to some of the questions gives you the answer to others.

For example, in a platoon-level game, the role of the player is platoon commander.

(a) Should he control individual soldiers?
(b) Should he control fire teams?
(c) Should he control squads?

I'm not a historian, I'm presuming (c) for WW2 games and perhaps (b) for more modern scenarios.  In any case, (a) is out as I find it doubtful a WW2 platoon leader would be precisely controlling each and every individual soldier.  (Perhaps only if they were standing right next to him?)

Now we know what level of abstraction to work at:

We'll probably activate soldiers as groups.
We might assume a 360 unit facing as we won't precisely note the facing of each individual soldiers
We probably won't count individual ammo or grenades - squads might have orders to "conserve ammo" or "mad minute"
Effects like suppression are applied to the squad as a whole
The precise location of individual soldiers in a squad might be elastic as it is the "footprint" or rough location of the squad we are interested in; i.e. we use area terrain instead of "true LoS" as the "squad occupies the house" rather than "Private Parts is standing in the attic window"
We won't bother with stats or special for individual soldiers, as we are interested in the squad as a whole (except perhaps the squad leaders, who do impact the squad as a whole)

...and so on.  The point I'm making is the "command level" determines the "amount of detail" - or gives you a good guideline of what to abstract and what to keep "concrete". 

Let's apply this to a naval game (a genre famous for rivet-counting detail and "complication").  Let's take Jutland for example.   If you're Jellicoe and control 100+ ships including 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 34 cruisers and 78 destroyers....  would you really care if one of those 78 destroyers lost its "B" turret?  Would someone even bother to tell you?  Would you care if they did?  Maybe the squadron commander would care, but would a fleet commander?

A fleet level wargame that includes that much (too much) detail, is, I would contend "unrealistic."

I'd suggest as commander of such a vast fleet, you would only be interested in the antics of squadrons or divisions of a half a dozen to a dozen destroyers or so.   Actually, given the communications of the era, the fleet commander didn't know a lot at all.  Which is a topic in itself, but I'll touch on it briefly here.

Communications obviously influences the level of control a commander has over his subordinates.  You know how I thought a platoon commander in WW2 might only control a squad, but a modern platoon commander might control fire teams? That's because of the proliferation of individual radios and communication devices.

Too much detail is unrealistic.  Elsewhere I've discussed how gamers tend to make the mistake in saying games are either "fun or realism" or "simple or realistic."   This is wrong.  They aren't opposites, or even related.  They certainly aren't mutually exclusive.  It's like saying "tall vs good looking."

Gamers tend to equate a complicated, detailed set of rules as being "realistic."  Tracking every bullet fired, and if a 5 knot crosswind would effects them, is not neccessarily more realistic.  It's more complicated, sure, and takes longer to resolve.  It might even be appropriate in some circumstances (a 1v1 sniper duel?).  But in the terms of our platoon level game, it is unrealistic. So more complexity and detail does NOT equate to more realism.

Wandering off topic slightly, I tend to like the terms:

Decision points - do you as the player have lots of decisions/opportunities to influence the game? (Within the scope of your actual role i.e. as platoon commander or whatever). The decisions you make can be realistic (reflecting real-world tactics) or unrealistic. Good game design should encourage you towards the former.  IGOUGO tends to have few decision points.

Process/Resolution - this is how you do it (the dice rolling, measuring, stats/special rules, recording etc). This can be either simple vs complex, or detailed vs abstract.  I tend to prefer as simple and easy as possible while giving sensible results.   The process is NOT a matter of realistic or unrealistic - we're tossing dice on a table, for goodness sake.  The key question:  Is the process as simple as possible consistent with lots of decision points and realistic results?

....Results - are the outcome of your decisions and the resolution process. Your results tend to be realistic or unrealistic.  You don't have 'simple' or 'complex' results. Is the outcome realistic?

A good game....
So it follows a good game will have lots of (relevant, realistic) decision points, simple process/resolution methods, and give realistic results.  And you can see simplicity/complexity and realism don't conflict.

....anyway, back to the topic, which was "what should the commander know" or perhaps "what gets detailed, and what is abstracted?"  My final point is:

Tradition vs Innovation.
I suspect what we abstract or detail is based often more on tradition (i.e. previous games in the genre) than what is realistic. We copy activation and mechanics from other games because that's "normal" for, say, a WW2 game.   Chain of Command has innovative deployment with a "mini game" showing scouting and determining setup.   I'd say 95% of similar WW2 games (of which there is a huge range of rules) is "deploy your models anywhere 12" from the table edge."   Having the actions of scouting, terrain features and "first contact" with the enemy determine your deployment seems sensible; more realistic than units facing off neatly in flat rows across the battlefield (aka FoW "tank carpark").

Why is this so "innovative"?  Because every other WW2 game follows tradition, copying deployment mechanics from other games without considering "why?"  Actually, the CoC deployment rules will be a handy example:

The whole mini-game is sensibly abstracted with tokens - as we are interested in the platoon vs platoon clash, the actions of individual scouts/pickets are ignored in favour of simpler play. The abstraction is even more realistic - the platoon leader could not direct the individual pickets movements personally nor would he necessarily need a blow-by-blow description of every shot fired, (even supposing a scout would fire and thus attract attention), but is rather interested in the location of enemies and good deployment points for his own troops.  If the player as company leader could direct the individual actions each scout, it would be unrealistic as well as overly detailed and complex. The results are realistic, even if moving tokens around the battlefield are a simple method of resolution, and the player even has some decision points as to how he moves his "scout tokens."

What do you as a commander need to know? If it's not important, can you abstract/simplify it?  Your command level sets out guidelines for your game design.

Too much detail can be unrealistic.  It's not "simplicity vs realism" at all.  Abstracting or simplifying things can add realism.

This all links in with holistic game design principles - it helps to find realistic "decision points"  what to simplify in your "resolution" and  is checked against your "results."

Finally, tradition can lock us into particular mechanics or methods - we need to focus on the results and see if there is a simpler way - and ask "why" something is abstracted or (perhaps more pertinently, if we seek simplicity) why it isn't. 

There's quite a bit more to explore (i.e. tangents I didn't wander down, and things that could have been better explained) but my 2 year old needs "some 'tention" from her Dad.  This does link with similar topics - Realism in Wargames and Realism Revisited  - this is obviously a horse I enjoy flogging.


  1. I consider that what commanders need to know are capabilities, not hitboxes.
    For a ship commander (noting your Aeronef starting point) we are talking weapons, movement, position and hull integrity. There may also be occasions where he needs to understand a level below that because it is critical impacting the primary capability (e.g. rudder for mobility, an inoperative turret for firepower). That said, you also want to have sufficient detail to reflect different design specifics and not make everything too generic.

    On a land front the same line of thought applies - Platoon commanders want to know where their manoeuvre units are and how their key weapons (MGs, Anti-Armour) are being employed. Upwards, they want to know where the other Pls are, what they are doing, and what key Company assets are doing.

    BUT, like all rules, this exists to be broken. Just focusing on this eliminates some of the 'cinematic action' that makes gaming (and making models) so much fun. The improbable must still be possible, the probable must still be able to fail. These are the makings of epic stories and actions

    1. "BUT, like all rules, this exists to be broken. Just focusing on this eliminates some of the 'cinematic action' that makes gaming (and making models) so much fun."


      In the Aeronef example, I mark off individual turrets despite it being a squadron+ level game... ...because the weird pre-dreadnaught arcs just need to be acknowledged somehow as opposed to the conventional WW2 centreline turrets....

  2. Real life experience: in a modern naval task group (half a dozen frigate/destroyers, one high value unit - tanker or amphibious warfare ship and a couple or air assets - helos with possibly an MPA), the CTG and his principal warfare (AAW, ASuW and ASW) commanders (which are usually on different three different ships, to ensure each PWC has the best ship for his job - mainly the AAWC needs to be on the destroyer with the best air defence radar and data transmission architecture - no ship concentrates all C&C function and confusion is mitigated in case one of those ships is neutralized) reports flowing from individual ships are:
    - "precious" ammo (SSM, long range SAM): exact amount remaining after each expenditure
    - "common" ammo (short range SAM, gun, CIWS): upon reaching 50% and 25% (and 0% which is reported as a capability loss, see hereunder)
    - Damages are reported to the impacted PWC (sometimes all three of them) in terms of capabilities lost or degraded (e.g. "max speed 12", "helicopter deck fouled", "hull sonar passive only") with for each limitation a estimated time back online ("ETBOL") at which the capability should be available again... The exact cause isn't usually reported (but later in the after action reports) except when a particularly micro-managing CTG ask too many questions (which he shouldn't when missiles are flying, or about to).
    - Similarly, casualties aren't usualy reported except when they have a direct impact on the group. I.e. half a dozen sailors might not be mentioned at all (except maybe as a fractional reduction of the ships DC capacity) while the helo pilot breaking his foot while climbing a ladder will (the whole helicopter capability his lost), similarly a casualty requiring a urgent CASEVAC or MEDEVAC will (the ship might need to leave the task group, some helo might be used for the evac instead of being available for ASW or ASuW or at the very least an external air asset might fly in and out impacting AAW operations)

    1. Interesting read. I always thought modern naval combat in space might be fun. I find modern naval combat boring because the low movement:high shoot makes maneuver snail-like on the table (at least the games I've played in). A bit of sci fi handwavium might speed things up....

      Perhaps 2300AD aimed for this, but I always regarded it more as sub warfare.

  3. I think it depends on what is relevant to the game. If your game is about making command decisions, then you want the player's decisions to match that scope. In the latest version of my Titanomachia game (v9) the player makes the command decisions, but the activation of crew systems is used primarily for damage control, and secondarily to improve the effect of co-activated systems.

  4. A well thought out blog post. I've recently found your blog and have enjoyed reading through your posts. I'm a fan of simple over complex most of the time, but I do occasionally enjoy more complex games.

    I'm no historian or military taction, but I think the limited information that a commander has leads to some of the failures in the battle. For example, a commander may issue an order for a squad to move and engage X target, but it is currently engaged with Y target and is not able to comply with the commanders order.

    I see this concept being tied into the command roll in some way.

    1. I think a game can have complex decisions (lots of decision points) whilst retaining simple mechanisms.

      Sadly, it's difficult to do. Designers (and players!) tend to identify "complex, deep game" with "complex, detailed mechanisms"

    2. "For example, a commander may issue an order for a squad to move and engage X target, but it is currently engaged with Y target and is not able to comply with the commanders order. "

      Or may not understand, or may not be willing. This is where training and command abilities need to be incorporated into the C2 system.

    3. "For example, a commander may issue an order for a squad to move and engage X target, but it is currently engaged with Y target and is not able to comply with the commanders order. "

      I think the interesting point is that most games have "suppression" which hampers their responding (i.e. can't move, reduces fire or something) but not many have them "unwilling" or "too busy" which could be under favourable circumstances i.e. THEY are fine, and are busy suppressing that German squad across the street but the platoon commander wants them to pull back NOW. Having a "delayed" response to orders even under good circumstances might be interesting, though tracking it adds yet more tokens....

  5. I should add that one of the most blatant failures of most games in adding too much detail is providing details of combat. Many, many times throughout history Commanders have made decisions based on incorrect estimates of damage/casualties inflicted.

    I know your Aeronef rules are designed for fun between friends - perhaps then, you could mark your damage results with an asterix or symbol to denote which ones you have to tell your opponent about, otherwise its kept secret. Decisions are thus made on guesses not known information. For example, the enemy can then only tell that a turret was knocked out when it stops training and doesn't fire next turn, but would know immediately if the magazine exploded.

    1. Get outta my head!

      Yesterday I was designing a ship data card (in glorious MS Word+paint splendour)and was deciding what should go on it, and what should be a token/marker.

      I decided guns, hull/speed and criticals like rudder and bridge hits should remain on the card (not necessarily to be shared) while fires/explosions and flooding/sinking would be markers as they would be obvious to everyone....

  6. Traditionally, a commander commands one level down but sees resolution two levels down. for example a corps commander will directly command divisions, but be aware of what his divisions' brigades are doing.

    At a lower level, if a battalion level game is using any units smaller than a platoon to resolve combat, then it will probably slow down too much.

    Regards, Chris.

  7. Would be cool to have the damage chart results worded to read like a damage report to the commander.

  8. Hey - I ran into your blog while puttering around the internet, and have spent a little while now perusing your list of game design articles. Well done, sir.

    I was wondering if you might be willing to take a look at a war game that I've been working on for a little while now? I've been looking for some feedback on it. If so, I'm currently packing the rules into a web site at (it's also a WIP thing)

    (I tried to email you, but I wasn't able to find an address on here)

    1. Sure. Also, there is a google group (link to right) where people often discuss rules, ideas etc which you're welcome to join.

      You're welcome to contact me on maj_lovejoy

      I don't tend to mark it on the site as I dislike receiving penis enlargement ads or Nigerian get-rich-quick schemes....


      ^ google group link.

  9. Brilliant post.
    This really gets to the heart of designing a game for the player.

    A good game lets the player be the general (or colonel, or sergeant), and requires a bit of measurement, moving and combat rolling.

    Many poor games force the player to be the general, 3 captains, 15 sergeants, and the entire quatermaster corps simultaneously.
    Too much information deflects the player from planning and implementing the mission.