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

By Bill Gray 03 Aug 2016 2

“The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”

This was a comment from a German general at his Allied debriefing at the end of World War II. While tongue in cheek, the point is well taken. War occurs when the orderly process of diplomacy fails, and results in deadly international chaos. The winners are thus those who learn to manage or at least marginally control the unmanageable - the chaos of war and the lack of order or process. Military wargames have emphasized this for years as a significant teaching point. The idea is to allow officers and commanders the opportunity to practice adjusting and exploiting unforeseen situations, especially when higher command guidance is lacking or information about what the Hell is going on does not exist. The ability to do so is what Napoleon meant when he responded to a query as to what made the best general. He said, “Give me a general who is lucky.”

One would think that hobby military wargaming, birthed from its military parents in H. G. Wells' 1913 classic Little Wars, had little issue with the concept of increased unpredictability (or chaos, or friction or whatever) in its contests. However, at least in the historical tabletop community, this was not initially the case. Reaction ranged from mild amusement, through wonder to astonishment to that feeling one gets after being told to take a spoon and neuter an 800 pound gorilla with a hangover.

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When developing my Napoleonic variant of Rich Hasenauer’s Fire & Fury ACW rules, I hosted a playtest game at an HMGS convention. A couple of my players were die hard EMPIRE Napoleonic rules aficionados. The EMPIRE rules themselves were a sort of revolution as it made gaming complete battles a reality by changing the figure scale from the traditional 1:20 to 1:60. Otherwise it was complex and predictable in outcomes, as there always seemed a way to calculate a 100 % chance of success in things like firefights. When asked for comments, one of the two lads indicated he thought the rules were simple, highly realistic and that he thought that it cleverly forced him to focus on being a corps commander versus playing captain to lieutenant general and everything in between.

And then he said, “I really hate these rules.”

“But why?” I asked.

“They are too damn realistic. I’ve been in the military, and I’ll vouch for that.”

“And this is a problem because . . . ?”

“It’s a problem because if I do everything correct by the rules, then I should win 100 % of the time.”

“So how do you factor in things like a messenger falling off his horse and drowning while fording a river?”

“You don’t and you shouldn’t. It won’t let me win.”

Yet the chaos concept not only survived but flourished in historical miniature gaming circles, to the extent where it is now a mainstay of tabletop design philosophy. Yes, there are still rules that take the more traditional and predictable route, but more common still are those which have made gameplay a more random affair. One, Piquet written by Bob Jones in 1998, is thought by some to be too overly chaotic to be historically accurate. There are many reasons for success, to include the many players who simply appreciate the extra dose of realism even if it makes victory harder to obtain. Indeed, many enjoy the greater challenge because it makes beating Napoleon at Austerlitz (2 December 1805) all the more satisfying. However, from my position as a tabletop gamer and denizen of 40 years, there are other consequences perhaps overlooked.

Tournaments are the first thing that comes to mind. Yes there is a very robust tabletop tournament program here in the Colonies, but nothing anywhere close to the circuit that exists in the motherland (the UK, for all you non-AWI types). Because of this there is no overwhelming emphasis on formal competition and thus gameplay that proceeds solely due to the contestants’ decision making, rather the unpredictable environment where the game is played. Here the EMPIRE player makes a good point. If an individual is playing the final round for some Society of Ancients World Cup, is trouncing his appointment and about to hoist the victory chalice, it’s bad form to have him lose because his commander’s horse stumbles and crushes his high ranking rider like a day old fortune cookie. I imagine in Britain this would see more than a few voices raised, while in the US . . . well, just don’t do it in Texas.

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Second is the fun factor. Because of the greater level of unpredictability, it is with morbid astonishment that players still throw caution to the wind and take the most unbelievable risks, praying to the Dice Gods for victory. How about charging the elite Gendarmerie of France when they are already winded from previous fighting, with the army commander attached and thus subject to getting shot or skewered? Here is where the social aspect of US tabletops, as opposed to the more formal tournament setting, shows its strength. Often the Dice Gods sneer and disaster strikes, sending the Gendarmerie scurrying off table with army commander in tow, unable to stop them. This is normally followed by howling laughter and wide eyed disbelief from the victim, all served with a garnishment of beer for everyone. Some gamemasters actually award things such as certificates and pink dice for such tactical finesse, and not having at least one is often considered a mark of shame.

Another important aspect is the fact that such unpredictability is interjected as a result, not a formal process. Determining unit movement based primarily on a modified die roll, rather than additional rules to determine if a messenger arrived and yet another to determine if the orders were accepted, kept the game simple and fast flowing. And quite frankly, there are simply some battlefield situations that cannot be accurately modeled to begin with, and a wide die roll swing encompasses those with little effort. At Malplaquet (11 September 1709), for example, the hard pressed Allies actually forced a French withdrawal by having their own drummers beat out the French command to retreat.

Finally, there is the aspect of “leveling the playing field” so to speak. Think the Seven Weeks War 1866, which saw a bayonet happy Austria tangle with Prussians armed with the breech loading Zundnadelgewehr (Needle Gun) using Schnellfeuer (rapid fire). Here the Austrians have a single basic tactic I like to call DIP, or Die In Place. So it was in the first of two games I sponsored at Historicon on the 1866 battle of Skalitz. Here the Austrians got shot to pieces, while the game itself lasted exactly as long as the historical battle, with the same objectives seized and a casualty count with two dozen of history. It was ugly, but the second game, not so much. Why? The second time fresh, primed and ready Prussian regiments rolled only half moves, and in one case for one turn, an entire brigade refused to budge at all. Perhaps reality was a brigadier questioning his orders, but it did allow the Austrians to better use their only advantage, their artillery. Yes, they lost, but the fight was a very close knock-down, drag-out. Injecting some chaos into the affair made victory at least possible and the sting of defeat a mark of pride with heads held high. And history was served well as a bonus. While many historical battles seem like forlorn hopes or complete walkovers, reading the narratives of the men who struggled there confirms a brutal, tenacious fight with enough courage and endurance for everyone involved. That using chaos to block a player’s God like omniscience and replicate unpredictability was well worth the proverbial “price of admission” for many.

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The future ain’t what it used to be.

Baseball great Yogi Barra said this, and he was right. For the future I see an expansion of such game design both downward and laterally. By downward I mean on the tabletop for games that use the battalion rather than the brigade as the base unit of play. Let us not forget that one of the things that made unpredictability acceptable was that at higher levels of command, such as the corps, the player realistically should not be involved in lower, more tactical decision making. He has colonels and brigadiers to do that for him, but large die roll swings exposes that sometimes they simply don’t get it right, and sometimes they do. However, Rich Hasenauer, the original author of Fire & Fury, has produced another set of rules known as Regimental Fire & Fury. This is a battalion (in the American Civil War, regiments were single battalions of 10 companies) set, but some of the same predictability of the former game has infiltrated to the latter. This time the chaos is more subtle, as expected at this level where a player has more tactical control, and some replicates higher command and staff not played by anyone. This could be a notional army commander, who in reality might not know the specific situation behind a forest, is cautious and thus in real life might issue inappropriate orders. So far, the results are promising.

By laterally I speak of tabletop cousins digital gaming and cardboard counter gaming. Here too there is movement. For example the board gaming world has independently embraced a chit pull system (I guess you have to have something to use those extra counters for) to randomize play in many games. Here the players alternate drawing a chit from a cup, with the chit indicating what units may then move, what action they might take or both. Designers such as Decisions Games Joe Miranda and GMTs Richard Berg enjoy this technique, with games such as Waterloo and Across Five Aprils prominent examples. Given that most of these games are still played solitaire, using chit pull and other methods will be most welcome as it provides some semblance of the opposing player missing from the contest.

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For computer wargames – real wargames, not Hollywood history games such as the Total War series – trends are more difficult to determine because who can find, much less interpret the underlying code? However, based on what I CAN see, adoption seems more hesitant. Yes, some manuals provide numbers on the correlation between chance of success and a unit’s game status, such as less effective fire due to digital fatigue points. However, I don’t see in either documentation or play anything that looks at randomizing unit functions based on generic Clausewitz friction or “just because.” Thus in one of my very favorite PC games, Pike & Shot, units on turn one NEVER simply fail to move for no apparent reason to the player. Yet in this particular era such machinations would be quite appropriate. Think Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, for example. He often personally went to various points on the battlefield to take charge rather than send messengers because, alas, few of his noble born commanders could read!

And thus our conversation ends on a bit of irony. There is no doubt that computer games have an expected technological edge over the lowly chit and toy soldier. Often this superiority is used to good effect to replicate the fog of war by the use of hidden units and so on. Yet while the tools to do more are firmly in place, the desire seems. This of course, like this entire article, is a very general pronouncement, and exceptions do exist. Nevertheless it would seem that in this particular flavor of game design theory, the antiquated miniature and counter have taken the lead, perhaps because the visual nature of their gaming demanded it and nothing breeds invention like necessity. I might suggest it is time for digital wargaming to catch up.

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