Recon & The Fog of War: The Importance of Block Wargames

By Matt Thrower 11 Oct 2017 0

In a two-part series last year, Bill Gray skirted around the issue of representing fog of war in tabletop miniatures games. It's obviously a big problem to represent friction and bluff in a game where units take the form of big, colourful, eye-catching figures. It's obviously easier to do these things in a board game, as Bill pointed out. Easier, however, is not the same as easy.

During my first tentative teenage steps into the hobby, I can recall how vexing this question was. You don't need to know anything about warfare to see how critical the issue of intelligence is in terms of representing conflict. But doing so realistically with a board and counters felt, at best, awkward -- I can remember delight in discovering my first ever game with bluff aspects. That game was Cityfight from SPI, and I also remember the immense disappointment I felt when I discovered how the bluff worked. Each player had their own map, a screen and a confusing slew of rules dealing with revealing and tracking units on a third, shared copy of the map. It was possible without a referee, but pretty excruciating. If those were the lengths required, it wasn't worth the effort.

The next innovation that landed in my lap was West End Games' Air & Armor. This was much better. Each unit had a step counter hidden underneath it representing its strength. Some step counters could turn out to be dummy units. You didn't know exactly how strong an enemy was - or even if it was real - until you engaged with it. While better than hidden maps, this had its own problems. Having every counter as a stack of two was awkward for setup and play, and it had a limited payoff, since you could still see what type and quality of unit you were facing.

Air & Armor came out in 1986 but, in fact, the problems of its blind system had already been solved back in 1972. Lance Gutteridge of Gamma Two Games was designing a game which used dice as pieces, decrementing the value to represent strength. But dice were expensive, so he changed them to be wooden blocks: one side had the unit stats on it and a number printed along each edge, so the player could rotate the block to show the current strength; and the other side and the edges were blank so the other player could not see any of the unit's information.

This was the birth of the block game, a tradition that went from Gamma Two to Columbia games with occasional support from other publishers. Block games are extraordinary in the simplicity with which they solve a longstanding and awkward issue in gaming. The fog of war effect they create is realistic without any effort on the part of the players. Arguably, it's actually better than the blanket fog of war implemented by video wargames. In reality, officers often have a good idea of where the enemy is. What they don't know is what that enemy is, nor the firepower they possess. All of this is neatly replicated with some simple blocks of wood.

This simplicity may be the key to why these games aren't better known: the ease of the central mechanic has lead designers to build simple games around them. The compelling bluff element also makes them good for gaming badly-detailed history like the middle ages. The lack of information on these subjects again encourages simplicity in the rules. Given the rigour that a lot of wargamers demand in their realism, it may lead to a lot of gamers overlooking the block system. This is a terrible mistake.

When you think back over history, consider the number of battles where fog of war and intelligence were critical to the outcome. Bull Run, Tannenberg, the Bulge, the Six-Day War: I could go on and on. It was, arguably, the pivotal factor in the entire Vietnam War. For military history where intelligence is vital - which is most of it - getting the fog of war right is the most important element in realism. That it makes the game approachable and easy to learn should be celebrated, not picked over for flaws in obscure supply or engagement rules.

It's hard to think of a better illustration of this than Worthington Games' Holdfast series. The original title, Holdfast: Russia (recently expanded and reprinted as Holdfast: Eastfront) had just four pages of rules. There was a very simple supply system which put pockets and envelopment at the heart of the strategy, and it had a super-smart innovation in which the points to activate units and the points to upgrade them came from the same pool. It forced players into difficult choices from the off. Without hiding the strength, disguising use of that points pool, or the unit, making envelopment easier, the game would have had to be much more complex. As it is, it's a tolerable simulation of the whole Eastern Front with plenty of replay value that can be learned and played in a single evening.

 

Holdfast feels like something of a holdout. There was once a time when block games like Hammer of the Scots got held up as the ultimate starter wargame. They still should be. They're far easier than block games or even simple hex and counter titles. Their fog of war aspects make them far more realistic. Even Columbia has scaled back on block releases, so we should be encouraging publishers like Worthington who get on the block train. Whatever they lack in detail is more than made up in the excitement, realism and accessibility they offer.

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