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Mark Herman's Wargaming Blog
Wednesday, 15 June 2011
BGG Wargamer of the Month Thread link
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

Here is a link with some interesting questions and hopefully reasonable answers. 

Posted by markherman at 6:13 PM EDT
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Sunday, 18 July 2010
Use of Blocks in Ancient battles
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

Rumbles across the internet...


I heard of the recent exchange, so I am marching to the sound of the guns... 


Before the academics in the crowd begin doing the ready, shoot, aim... I have taught graduate level Military strategy courses for the Naval War College and do so currently for Georgetown University. I have also been building military simulations for the Pentagon for thirty years. I do this so I can make my point and avoid having to post bona fides later. 


There is always some level of uncertainty at all levels of battle, but in a pre-gunpowder linear battle the question is how does the uncertainty impact tactical decisions and are blocks the best model for representing this effect? I would submit that blocks are lots of fun in a two player game and bring good psychological tension, but most block games have mechanics where the units do not reveal themselves until the forces are in contact. Never been in an ACW battle or seen what Pompey saw at Pharsalus, but at some point prior to actual contact you do kind of know what is coming. However, from a model point of view if you cannot do anything or little about it then for all intents and purposes it has the same effect. The question is does having a higher level of information (counters revealed) allow for generous tactical reactions? If the force, space, and time factors are appropriately tuned to the information there are many ways to skin the uncertainty cat. 


My take on it is reserves and tactical traps should be allowed in the system (hidden deployment at Dara in our Cataphract game), but having a reasonable knowledge of the width and general troop density of the front lines does not seem unreasonable. In fact not knowing seems more unreasonable. Dust from marching occurs once the forces are in motion, but most of these battles had a forming up period with a lull of sorts so I would expect at some point a good view of the enemy front line would present itself. Also, not every battle was fought on a dusty plain. Wet grass does not obscure vision on a pre-gunpowder battlefield. Now once folks start closing and stabbing each other things would get confused, but most games lock in the frontlines at some point so tactical maneuvers become more difficult anyway. The action tends to be on the flanks where you can get around someone or using the Alexandrian technique of creating an interior flank, etc. In the Roman way of war, when it works you just bust through the front. The ability of the Romans to line change and conduct sub-unit maneuvers was based on some level of tactical knowledge at the point of contact otherwise why would they invent a doctrine that made no sense. 


There are lots of ways to get there, but although blocks are a viable option, they do have some shortcomings when it comes to how well they represent the appropriate level of uncertainty in a tactical battle. I think there are better techniques and some of the alternate techniques offer more options in solo play. 




First, I wonder if we, in hindsight, overestimate how much knowledge that one person, (the man - usually - responsible for making decisions on the spur of the moment, in the heat of battle, with death, noise, and the screams of fellow humans assaulting his senses, with conflicting information being relayed to him every minute), really could bring to bear on his decision-making process in the midst of battle, no matter how clear a day it was, how little dust, and how flat and open the terrain. 


In modern combat where a few folks with lots of firepower can move and conceal themselves, I agree, but I thought the conversation was around linear battles and I was specifically focusing on pre-gunpowder linear battles. I believe that if we were able to see one ancient battle, we would have seen one ancient battle. This is why most of the GBOH scenarios have lots of special rules because the unique circumstances often had a dramatic impact on the outcome. I also would note that I have always followed the view that we are at best guessing as many of the ancient sources are not contemporaneous to the time, often writing centuries after the event from sources that did not survive into modern times. Hard to know, so I do not try for truth, just a spectrum of possible situations as indicated by the sources and let the players explore all of them. For example our Pharsalus battle has multiple options for the order of battles and tactics depending on who you believe. 


What a commander did or did not know about what he was confronting varied across the spectrum. Let's take the battle of Metaurus. The Carthaginians knew that they were finished because they heard the morning trumpets and could count that the number of legions had doubled over night. So, the notion that ancient commanders were a befuddled confused lot that walked blind into a combat situation was true on occasion, such as Kadesh, but on other occasions they knew the basic score. 


I always go back to the expectations of the participants. Any successful traps and ambushes first occurred at the operational level, prior to contact. That is why it is so hard to balance some of the ancient battles as in many cases like Metaurus the loser had already lost ala Sun Tzu's dictums and in the Carthaginian case they already knew it before they had left camp. There were situations when both sides were surprised, but I think that is more the exception that makes the rule. 


Second, out of honest curiosity and respect for someone who has deigned many wargames that I have played, enjoyed, and agreed with the history portrayed, what are those shortcomings that blocks have that can be better handled by counters? 


Blocks are great, but they are one tool in the kitbag for me. I find myself with Richard on this. I think they really shine at the operational level in almost any period, but for pre-gunpowder linear battles, I think the hidden intelligence element is improperly represented. Not some fact, just my view. In a linear battle although there is a lot of noise that noise is also information. Twelve guys cannot sound like a thousand up close, so the notion that a weak block at a football field away is going to fool me into thinking I am under heavy assault just does not make sense even with dust and such. Even in modern combat tanks do not sneak up on anyone, even quiet ones. Of course there are great exceptions where acoustic shadows create unusual sound doldrums, but that does not usually happen in line of sight situations. So, bottom line, blocks do not seem to represent for me the kind of chaos that did occur during an ancient tactical battle. That does not mean that I am right, just that my reading of the sources and some basic logic does not lead me to that conclusion. The kinds of chaos that does occur is confused orders, key people getting killed by a missile weapon that shakes a unit, etc. But in the end the block mechanic, while fun does not work for me at the tactical level. Just my view. 


My biggest problem with blocks is more mechanical and production oriented. First off I am not a big fan of some assembly required. Not a big deal and I applaud GMT and any other company that gives two sets of labels as I am a klutz with getting them on straight. I also do not like that once a unit loses some strength the unit designation etc., is no longer upright. No big thing, but I do not like the aesthetic. Lastly, I play games mostly solo, so the entire hidden intelligence thing is wasted on me 99% of the time. Not a good or a bad thing, but a lifestyle issue. 


Intelligence and who knows what when is critical to understand the circumstances of a particular battle. To handle intelligence interactions I prefer cards and other mechanisms. I also use various mechanics such as in Empire of the Sun, whereby you have a basic idea where units are located, but at the moment of contact that information may not be what you thought due to intelligence failure. It seems more powerful and effective from my perspective. Again that is a design preference not an established fact. 


Anyway that is how I see it. 



Posted by markherman at 3:49 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 18 July 2010 3:53 PM EDT
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Thursday, 1 July 2010
What is a CDG?
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

 <Based on a long and now acrimonious thread on what is a CDG? I wrote this response>


I continue to note high levels of hostility over how one group wants to define something and another groups desire that this is anathema or somehow wrong. It is clear why war is part and parcel to the human experience.


When I designed WTP I was going for a strategic level political military wargame and that is what I produced. I used the GO mechanic as a metaphor for the political struggle that was part and parcel to representing the American Revolution. See my articles in c3i and ATO on this topic. I stand by my description in my Washington's War design notes on what I think a CDG is and I am happy for others to have their definition. I was not designing a CDG or a card driven game, I was designing and publishing  an American Revolution wargame, which I have successfully accomplished over forty times. The game had many fans, although I would note that the design never won any awards. But it did generate a new interest in competitive play amongst wargamers that was formerly not a critical element in the culture. 


When WTP came out I was approached by several gamers who are patent attorneys. They wanted to help me patent the concept. With several patents pending I was aware of the process and chose consciously not to pursue this option. Whether the patent office would or would not have agreed will never be known, but at the time, veteran wargamers and more importantly wargame designers saw WTP as a new design concept. Peer review from the likes of CV, Mark Simonitch, and Ted Raicer to name a few is what created the genre.


Mark Simonitch in Hannibal and Ted Raicer in Paths of Glory both acknowledge in their credits and design notes borrowing many of their primary systems from We The People. They did not have to do that but as they are quality individuals and very talented designers this had a powerful influence on opinion. I would also note that both games are much more popular than We The People according to the BGG ratings and the opinion of about everyone I know in wargaming. I then brought out For The People, the fourth in the group, and somewhere amongst all of this the term CDG was coined and it stuck. Was it the perfect term, seemed to work for the last fifteen years or so, and since people who buy CDGs wanted to buy more of them the game companies branded as many games  with the term as they seemed to boost sales.


Why are CDGs popular with many wargamers? One aspect is they seem to generate a great deal of enthusiasm for competitive play. Consequently play balance in CDGs is an important feature. But what is a CDG that makes them unique? Basically they borrow heavily from the We The People design. What are those features? If you have not played WTP or any of the other CDGs then this can be argued to death, which is what has been happening. So my advice is try playing one before you tell those of us who are immersed in them what they are or are not.


CDGs continue to evolve as noted by me in my Washington's War design notes. We The People does not have the common feature that keeps getting put forward as a unique CDG feature, the card choice of ops or event. We The People had this concept based on a hand of cards, but not around each card. That innovation occurred in Hannibal and was a Mark Simonitch improvement. When I did Washington's War I chose to keep the original concept for the reasons I articulated in my design notes and a nod here to Unhappy King Charles for being the closest of the CDGs to the original concept and why it is my favorite of the recent CDG offerings.


The main division in CDGs these days is between the one deck unscripted designs (WTP, FTP, WWR, Hannibal) and the scripted two deck temporally segmented concept (a PoG innovation ala Twilight Struggle, Shifting Sands, BtB, Stalin's War, UKC). Only WTP and Hannibal used the strong GO mechanic whereas the others morphed into using control for supply and territory control icons. What is clear is the wargame community sees a clear genre of games that are recognizable as a group whatever you call them. Literally parsing the term CDG is kind of useless as it is a symbolic term that is based on a collective group agreement. You don't agree then you do not have to, but it is a branded term that works for the publishers and the buyers. The main distinction in my mind is the designers of these games and others in the CDG family claimed they were related to We The People and consequently all branches and sequels thereafter carry the same label. I had nothing to do with their decisions or their professional courtesy in acknowledging the design heritage, but it is hard to argue with.


Those are the facts as I experienced them and I am very happy the way things have evolved as I now have lots of CDGs to play that continue to bring new innovations to the hobby. For the record my CDG of choice is Empire of the Sun and it has only a modest relationship to my original WTP design. I suspect that as CV opined with a few more nudges a new genre will break off and coin a new term that everyone will argue about.



Posted by markherman at 9:01 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Dialog on my views of Game Reviewers and Ratings
Topic: Wargame Design Musings
bentlarsen wrote:
MarkHerman wrote:
Thanks for posting your views over on the Washington's War folder. Based on your comments I did re-read Chris Farrell's comments again and I am not sure why you think that this is a better review than the more positive ones other than it is more negative.

Chris is a smart fellow who is very impressed with his own opinion. I read all comments about my games, so I have a view of what does and does not make a good review. A good review sets metrics for how the game will be judged, otherwise it is just opinion with no objective standard. One of the reviews that you did not like did a very good job in this regard. 

Chris fails as a reviewer as he has very distinct tastes, which is fine for a gamer, but a major problem for a reviewer. He makes ascertains without any supporting thoughts and thinks he is stating facts. He has reviewed all of my recent games and he has disliked all of them. No problem, but all I can conclude from his reviews is he has not played any of my designs all that much, so his comments on design features and their impact on game strategy are misguided at best. As a consequence he offers a professional game designer and the reader nothing much beyond his personal tastes in games.

He starts off by saying in the review that you wanted me to re-read that he did not like We The People all that much, then points out several factors that he thinks make Washington's War a worse game (discard mechanism and OPs Queue) and then later contradicts himself by saying that the activation system does not work because the British need 3OPS cards, which is the point of the OPS Queue. It is my belief that he imagines how the game should play out vice actually figuring it out through play. The discard mechanism is generating a lot of positive comment, so people like it. Chris does not like it, but as usual without much explanation other than it makes the game more complicated. Complexity is in the eye of the beholder not some objective standard of goodness. 

Frankly I have read all of Chris's reviews and all that comes through is he seems to know how to design a better version of the game he is playing. That's fine, but upon reading his remarks it is clear that he really hasn't played Washington's War many times as his comments about the worthless American generals demonstrates to me that he does not understand how to play the Americans well. This point was true in We The People, but the new attrition rules require the Americans to play very differently, so it is my belief given how quickly his review came out that he read the rules and applied his thinking to what he remembers from We The People. I was told at a recent convention from serious players that Chris does not know what he is talking about on this specific point. Again this demonstrates to me that he is just doing a drive by review with little thought or time invested.

It is my understanding that the basis of the BGG game rating was tied to a player's willingness to play it again. From what I can tell on BGG and over on CSW, the players that are rating the game very highly are playing it constantly, which may be the basis for their high ratings vice some philosophical design standard. In the end if a game grabs someones fancy, and most of my designs do not generate this level of enthusiasm, then it is what it is.

I decided to write you privately as I find that open forums are not useful for real communications, but I do take all comments seriously and I wanted you to know that I took your advice.

Take care,


Thank you again for reading my comment and writing to me.

Before I get to your response, I do not want you to take any criticisms of your designs as criticisms of you, Mark Herman. Your games must be like your family, so I imagine it might be tough. Second, you are the "guy" who started it all with these Card-driven wargames. You are the inovator. We the People might not be a game I like, but your original concept and design has led to many games that I do like. Third, I would rank you among the very best designers. I never try to rate a list like that from best on down; it is just too difficult.

If you reread my comments, what I hoped you could influence in the BGG community are those individuals who helped develop or play-test the game, and who are rating it highly. I think it is not ethical for these individuals (there are two for sure, are there more?) to have ratings, not that anyone is going to go to hell for loving or hating a game. I think they are entitled to comment, but they should leave off the numbers. This issue is a frequent flyer on BGG. You are not responsible for what they do or say. If you see my concern, maybe you could give them a nudge. If they do not budge, that is not your fault. 

"Sycophant" is a strong term, a fighting word, as Yosimite Sam would say. I haven't read any hate mail about it, so I guess that no one has seen my comment because it does not have a number rating. Either that, or these people do not know what it means.

None of these tens qualify as a review in my understanding of the term. None of the reviews under the review forum qualify as a real discussion of the strengths and weaknesses--no game is perfect, not any on my top ten list, that's for sure--a your design. The geeks leaving tens come across as people kissing up. You have earned your place among the best of the best (and I am not kissing up, just stating a fact), and your behind does not need any lips on it (the image makes me go "ewww!"). 

Most of the reviews I have read for wargames are an embarrassment to anyone who wants to have a serious discussion. These kinds of comments should just go under the "genera" forum so that everyone gets to exercise his or her freedom of speech. I know this is a social networking site for gamers, but if I am going to write a serious piece by way of review, I want to sweat before I write it. I have written at least six reviews for Paper Wars, not that anyone would know it because there has not been an issued published during the past two years or so. I have typed out 35 pages or more. When I gripe about this on the geek, I am looked down as an eliteist. I just want an intelligent discussion.

How many times have you see the mob mentality at work on BGG? You go with the flow or you get dumped on. The first serious (it likely won't be, it will just be a rant) negative review of your new WW will bring out the wolves in force to tear the nay-sayer apart.

Now, turning to Chris Farrell. He is an odd duck (so am I, for that matter). He has tremendous influence (anyone with tremendous influence has too much power) on the BGG community. It would seem he has earned his position with comments that I find sober and serious and free of the nastiness that I sometimes--sometimes?--leave when I am on a roll of one sort or another. It is sad, but I find I have to "yell" to be noticed around this place, that is when I want to be noticed. 

The comments that Chris left with his six rating do not qualify as a review (nor, as I said above, do any of the tens or other ratings, for that matter). But Chris says it without rancour. 

Take another look at what I said about his comments and the six:

Is anyone taking Chris Farrell's comments, and his six, seriously? Chris can be wrong (just look at his comments on Pursuit of Glory and compare them with the actual game). Chris has good gaming instincts, if you choose to ignore the time factor (everything is too long for him) and chrome (everything is too detailed). Other than these, he is usually okay. 

Mark, do you see there is a fair bit of agreement between you and I concerning Chris. One, he can be wrong. The five rating he gave for Pursuit of Glory, with his brief comments, is a joke. How do I know this? Look at my review that I wrote after playing the game for at least a full week. Two, I note how everthing is too long or too detailed for his taste. I use hyperbole, but I am well aware that Chris has, or seems to have, a strict set of guidelines for every game, and woe be to the game that falls out of him. For me, as an example, I can find Paths of Glory a blast to play, lots of fun, but do not confuse it with an historical wargame. Raicer has a great design with history pasted all over it, but that's all it is: paste. I prefer a game to be both good history and good game, but I can like it if it is only one or the other.

I want Chris' six, his sober, non-insulting tone, and his comments to put a brake on the lips of the sycophant chorus. He would need to move his comments into the review section. Given what passes for reviews, he would have no problem being accepted. Then the community might enter into a serious discussion of your game.

When I wanted to discuss ACW leadership ratings in games like For the People and others, I did a pretty botched job of trying to express my points. I think Chris, with his comparision to how the generals are rated in Hannibal, made a valid point that perhaps you could consider for a variant for the GMT magazine (the name escapes me).

Mark, I understand if I cross historical swords with you that I am likely to be on the losing end, but I think you have rated the American generals to highly in their combat capabilities. How many major battles did the British lose during the Revolution? Three at best? Howe bested Washington at New York and during the Philadelphia campaign, but you only have one point of difference between them. Washington is a great leader, but competant only, at best, general. 

To go back to For the People, I think you are of the traditional school that sees Grant, Lee, Sherman and Jackson as being on an equal plane of skill, and I feel this view has been overturned in the past ten years (if not before). For FtP, it would be nice to see a Hannibal aspect to the generals in these games. Grant is better on strategy that Lee. Lee is the tactician bar none. Jackson is at his best in a subordinate role. Sherman is a lousy tactician--he was at least honest enough to admit that he was not the best--but you have him equal with the others. Argh! 

But I digress.

In fairness, I do not know how any designer, even one as experienced and wise as you, can do full justice to the complexities of the the American Revolution. 

I hope you will consider me part of the loyal opposition, and I want to stress the loyal part. I have WW on order through the p-500, but Canada seems to be on the other side of the globe for all the time I have been waiting for its arrival. I want to get your Pacific War game, and I have heard that you and Richard Berg are working on a monster ACW game. Is this true? You can be sure that I will buy a copy. I want to help put food in your table, even while I preach to you how you have some--only some--things wrong. 

Invite me to your house for a week, or come to mine, teach me the basics of wargame design, and you won't have me as an armchair critic. Or hopefully even a critic.

I do wish you the best. If time allows, I will try to review WW, but I have to master the rules to Berg's Dead of Winter for a Paper Wars review--do you have an "easy guide" to these GBACW games?

Let me know how you feel about what I have said. 

Take care, and I hope you continue to do well with WW and with all your other designs.


Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. You bring up many points so I will focus on a couple. First off thank you for your warm remarks about my overall body of work, I appreciate the sentiments.

To your game review remarks I also read Chris's comments on Pursuit of Glory and based on my single play I mostly agreed with him. On the other hand I only played the game one time and I think that is all Chris may have played it. As a professional designer I feel that I can ethically support a game that I actually play and enjoy, but I will not criticize a design as it would be perceived as a conflict of interest. As far as the playtesters rating the game on BGG goes I do not see this an unethical or a conflict of interest, because they gain nothing by doing so. The review that I liked from the guy who was Sean or Paul, I forget, was a playtester and gave it a nine instead of a ten because I did not take one of his suggestions. So it is not clear that the playtesters are always a home field crowd. 

You state that Chris writes without rancor. That is in the eye of the beholder, but lets for argument state that I agree. That is not my issue with Chris' reviews. Why people think he deserves his reputation is not for me to say, but what he says is never supported or measured against any objective standard. So, for me all I am getting is Chris' opinion, his right, and based on the sameness of his reviews I find that they have little value for me as a professional designer. 

For example he has panned my EoTS game not once but twice. He does not like the War in Europe mechanic and states that it has driven every game that he has played. As background, I am a professional OPS Research analyst and I have taught Analytics (probability and statistics) at the graduate school level for Georgetown University. So, I am very strong in probability mathematics. When I built the decks of cards I ran them through a simulation and this was validated by independent gamers who have posted the spreadsheets that are available on CSW for all to see. So what he claims is not mathematically possible or he does not know how to shuffle a deck of cards. Based on this his remarks carry no weight with me as they cannot be substantiated in mathematical reality.

In the same review he makes a comment about how unrealistic in EoTS it is for a fleet to be pinned by a bomber. I wrote a monograph on this specific point with all of my research that is posted on my website. It seems to me that unless a reviewer is willing to wade into the historical detail that he is commenting on how seriously can I take said review. On a review he did for my For The People game he made a similar offhand remark about the CRT and how it was ridiculous or some such. Yet, I built that table out of actual data and every battle of the war can be reflected through that table. As I said Chris does not do his homework, just levies his opinion. For me that makes him no better than any other opinion on BGG or CSW.

I could go on but you get the point. Later in your letter you make note of the general ratings in Washington's War and then I remembered our earlier exchange and your thoughts on the For The People general ratings. If done well and I think I know what I am doing, a design is an intrinsic whole. If you take out one piece and evaluate it alone without the remainder of the design you can draw incorrect conclusions.

I agree with your analysis that the British won most of the battles they fought in the war. Actually, if you find my old General article on We The People what you really find is the attacker won the majority of the battles during the AmRev. This by the way is characteristic of most low density battles in musket and rifled musket period (AmRev and ACW). 

Your point is that Howe is only one point better than Washington, so it must be incorrect, because he won all of his battles. However, that is only one piece of the battle puzzle. First off you can never more than double your combat unit strength, so since the Americans lose half their CUs each winter (except the Continental army if it is in winter quarters) the ability to achieve those full ratings for the Americans is very rare. Another issue is the British gain a regulars advantage and in ports the navy, which is two more ticks. On top of all that the attacker wins ties which is effectively another tick. The end result from actually playing the game is that the combination of all of the above creates a large British advantage in combat. If you look at the message traffic it appears that the British strategies in the game are more obvious so no one is having any problem winning battles or the game with the British. My point is you have to look at the totality of the battle system, not just the General ratings, to see how the game achieves the historical result.

What Chris is totally missing, which makes me believe that all I am getting is a rehash of his We The People review is his point about the worthless American generals. Due to attrition the Americans do not want to over invest in large armies that will just evaporate. However, any General will never lose his last CU due to attrition. Think guerrilla army. The Americans have 7 generals to the British 5 and if the French come into the game it is 8 to 5. For the Americans to achieve a strategic maneuver advantage, which was not necessary or desired in WTP, you want to have as many 1CU armies in the game as you can get. If you do this the Americans can maneuver to gain leverage over PC markers, which the British are hard pressed to do. The point is to demonstrate, albeit abstractly, a key feature of the real war. Therefore, Lincoln is a very useful general if he has 1 CU, but dangerous if you give him a substantial force. Lincoln with 1 CU protects a group of PC markers from isolation and is expensive to kill as the British do not move as easily as the Americans. 

The same is true in my For The People design. The ratings are not my evaluation of Lee or Grant specifically, but generally. What is also being represented is their ability to eschew logistic certainty and their impact on their subordinated command structures. The ratings are also how the game represents terrain. Note that there is no terrain distinction between spaces. How could that make sense? My view is there is defensible terrain everywhere, but it is the ability of the commander to find it that generates a terrain advantage as reflected in the rating. As you can see unless you bring in all of the factors, the ratings make no sense. Besides on any given day everyone had a bad day, which was an improvement that I brought into Washington's War.

Another point that you raise is about synchophants and people following the herd mentality and shouting down those that they disagree with etc. All I can say is that is not a BGG phenomena, but an internet feature. I have hardly ever seen any open forum discussion, anywhere, remain civil or change anyones view from the one they held when the shouting began. It is not a problem, but a feature, so I just avoid those situation as they go nowhere. What I will say is that David Dockter who is a first class consultant did a very detailed analysis of BGG ratings and CSW message traffic. Not perfect, but better than one persons' opinion. Empire of the Sun and For The People which are two games that Chris dislikes are in the top four games of total player activity. My point is the BGG rating system is interesting, but it is the temperature not the weather. Before they modified the algorithms not one of the games that I actually play were in the top 100 wargames of all time. Now I may not represent the mainstream of gamers, but that is too statistically odd for me to think much of the BGG rating system. Now that they have modified how they calculate things at least a couple of the games that I play are in the top 100 and not one that is in the top 10 or 25. Not much for me there.

Note that For The People has been played continuously for over a decade by a very active group of gamers. Not many wargames can claim that. Is For The People perfect, no, and neither is any game, but lots of people play it despite Chris panning it. Clearly they do not give a hoot about what Chris says or thinks. The same is true for Empire of the Sun. So, if a BGG rating represents your desire to play a game, not a subjective rating of design goodness, then activity should equal a high rating for these people. Does that make them synchophants? On another level who cares if they are having fun. 

My last point is important to me. I do not design games for money any longer. There is no money in it to be had and the amount of time I spend discoursing with gamers if put on a per hour basis would be less than I made when I had a paper route as a kid. I do this because of my passion for wargaming. I design games that I want to play. I spend most of my time playing For The People, Empire of the Sun and now Washington's War. If I do not want to play them why would anyone else. I only like to play games that are in my opinion, historically accurate. I actually research and think about all that goes into one of my games because if it bothers me I would change it. 

Well time to write another lecture and get some sleep,

Be well,


Posted by markherman at 9:09 PM EDT
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Sunday, 21 December 2008
What makes a good historical simulation?
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

I would like to take a very different tack on what makes a good historical simulation. Don has picked up on the physics side very well, which is very amenable to calculations and data. I would like to say that all of that is necessary but whoefully insufficient. 


Decisionsmakers, in this case Lincoln and Davis' and their constituents perception of their physical reality is the dominant variable. What is perceived to be true is in fact true, regardless of the facts until changed by those facts. The reason is that decisions are based on perceived reality not physical reality (the two notions can converge, but the perceived reality always wins). For example how I treated DCs vulnerability in FTP makes this point. Lincoln thought it was vulnerable, but if the game system, as calculated by how the simulation treats the DC defenses, says that it is not vulnerable (and in retrospect it wasn't that vulnerable) then the players are given the luxury of ignoring a key historical cogniative variable. As the Eastern campaign was dominanated by this perception how can leaving it out make for a better historical simulation? 


Going to Taylor's point about friction. FTP deals with the activation of leaders using a friction model. Each leader's initiative can be thought of as an amount of standing friction that must be overcome to begin movement. The three rated leaders are harder to move than the one rated leaders because the card deck is not entirely composed of three OC cards. That relationship as represented by card probability and leader rating is a statement of standing friction. 


What the leader rating represents is how willing the leader in question was in taking risk, particularly as regards to their logistic preparation. The same real world physics pertained to a McClellan as it did to a Grant. What I mean by that is the needs of a Western soldier were not different than an Eastern soldier, a horse eats what a horse eats etc. (I am a huge fan of Van Creveld's book, even met and talked with him once). However, Grant's perception of what was possible (ability to forage in the deep South) was very different than McClellan's view. A strictly physical simulation, which account for all of the ones used in the DoD (with the exception of mine, search for Entropy Based Warfare) make no allowance for cogniative differences. 


The question I would ask how good can a simulation be if it ignores cogniative factors such as the ones I mention (e.g., DC)? 




PS: I broadly agree with Dockter on his point about the enduring value of personality in modern times, but I would note that the rise of the general staff system (just beginning in the ACW period) tends to mitigate the impact of one person on a very large organization. I would say that the impact of a modern leader on an organization is he sets the tone (how aggressive, how spit and polish) which in the aggregate does impact performance, but less so than a Lee sitting on Traveler during a battle. A political struggle due to its very nature, such as Dockter's excellent Triumph of Chaos, tends to elevate the importance of personal leadership as these personages ability to instill purpose into an ideological struggle is critical to its outcome. Witness the current struggle between America and Fundamentalism, its hard to say that icons do not matter in the 21st century.

Posted by markherman at 10:57 AM EST
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Friday, 11 April 2008
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

Introduction: This discussion began over in the ATO folder, but to be fair to those nice gentlemen it was appropriate to move this somewhere else. This discussion was started by a question by David Dockter. The question on the table is many games when they come out often get tagged with having had insufficient playtesting. This was my reply to some of those views.

I am always amused by all the pundits when they wax elogquently on how to produce a really well developed game. At least one person, which soon grows into a chorus, cries that a game did not have enough playtesting, its broken, its ahistorical...etc. As they say in the military, amateurs talk about strategy and professional talk about logistics. Playtesting is a major logistic issue in the production of a game where no one gets paid, there is no reward except for a rules credit, and a free game (I always make sure my testers get a free game...oh boy).

I think characterizing the wargame community as a business is actually the wrong model. The real model is that it is a large Coop. Some folks design, some develop, many playtest, and the farms turn out the goods that people have pre-paid for with others stopping by the stand to pick up surplus produce. I believe that this is a better view of what the industry has become. Proof of this is that there are very few people who make a full time living in this business except at the production end along the lines of graphics, administration, fulfillment of orders, etc. with the rare freelance designer (aka Berg, Raicer) thrown into the mix. In effect what you pay for is only a fraction of the real production cost of the good as the biggest labor costs are done for free or very low pay (e.g., designer/developer). On EoTS I made less than $1 per hour, which is why I am keeping my day job.

When it comes to playtesting, how much is enough. All of my games get extensive playtesting. My last design had 12 teams who played the game around 100 times or so. I got a message from one team that they could not play that weekend because one of the testers house caught fire one night, he was hurt (but not permanently...thank god), and had to walk wounded through the snow a mile or so to a neighbors house to get to a hospital. Many playtesters have their personal lives intrude, but I thought this was the most novel reason for missing a weekend playtest. The footnote was priceless..."but luckily the playtest kit was undamaged, so we should be able to play next weekend." The playtesters worked out the kinks in the mechanics and find all of the obvious issues, gamey tricks etc. There are always a couple of things that remain undiscovered, particularly around balance, which for me on an historical simulation is not the overriding issue...historicity is.

So, what if we had played it another one hundred times...I'm sure we would have found more stuff...but not enough to justify the time and energy from the free labor. The reason that I say this is if one looks at the various ways of calculating 'confidence' in a simulation, which Operations Research types need to understand in my world, it would take, as an estimate several thousand playings before you would achieve a 10% confidence on whether a game had a bias. So 10 groups playing once per weekend (with a two week vacation) would generate 500 playthroughs a year (obviously unobtainable) and in 5-6 years would reach a 10% confidence on whether a game had a bias or not. To achieve a 50% confidence level would take longer than the years I have left in my life.

The way we achieve this in the professional community is we are using computer simulations and we can run them day and night for weeks to achieve the appropriate statistics. In our world, a CDG has much higher combinatorial complexity than most of those models and there is no easy quantitative way of factoriing in player skill. In essence, for all practical purposes, it is not possible.

What happens of course is when a game is released, more post publication playthroughs occur in one week than occured in the entire production cycle. Things crop up...questions get asked...people freak out...and the pundits wax eloquently on how they would have done it better.

This begs the question of what is playtesting essence to wring out the major muscle movements of a design. Now if a design is part of a series, such as OCS, over time the design evolves to improve its mechanics and usually by the third iteration it stabilizes. A more traditional design has less moving combinatorial parts (no cards) so certain issues do not arise making the task a bit more manageable through the traditional processes, but even then I have never seen a design that I do not have questions about (all dimensions), but since I rarely play any game more than twice it is not an issue.

CDGs bring in another layer of probabilities that make determining outcome bias near impossible, so you play the game alot to eliminate system issues. What you want to get right is the mechanics and ensuring that you are driving the history into the design. In essence the game has to work well and be compelling to play. This is not to say that a product gets a by for incorrect set ups (my personal biggest heartburn), poorly proofread components, mistakes on charts etc. A CDG needs to meet the same high level of design and production excellence we all strive for. However, once the public gets a hold of a CDG or any game that gets played alot new unanticipated tactics will arise that may require tweaks to the balance. CDGs are very focused on head to head play vice solo play. Therefore balance has become a major critieria for CDGs due to tournament and internet play. The majority of the games on the market have never had their balance put through the intensity of the CDG experience, there are exceptions, but not many. Consequently it is very difficult to effectively validate a CDGs bias, let alone any game, from normal playtesting alone.

It should become clear that I do not view balance as a design issue, but something that has to evolve over time as people become more adept at playing a particular design, something not seen since the halcyon days of S&T. I have also found that many balance issues are ones of strategy and not mechanics, a debate that is ongoing in regard to my latest design. It appears that the Allies are having difficulties making amphibious invasions while the Japanese still have naval superiority. My answer is first get naval superority...some light bulbs are going on. All in all a very interesting set of dynamics.

Those are some of my thoughts...I'm sure many 'experts' will disagree, but after 40 designs and 30 years this is my current view.


Postscript: This note started an interesting yet controversial thread. I would note that the responses varied, so if those authors come over, I'm sure they will post their views again. I will note that Twilight Struggle a new system, with only 8 pages of rules, got years of playtesting including numerous conventions. If you take the current view in that folder, the Soviets are viewed, currently, as having a decisive advantage. Again, the nuances of the new system were basically known, numerous strategies were tested, but if you just take the conservative idea that each post represents 1 playthrough, that represents 3500 games that have revealed a new 'truth'. Was the playtesting insufficient, even after years of development? My personal view is it is a very well crafted professional design that is exciting and fun to play yet experiencing exactly what I wrote above. Others will disagree...I'm sure we will hear from them shortly.

Posted by markherman at 1:57 AM EDT
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Sunday, 3 February 2008
GBOH Tactical System as posted on CSW
Topic: Wargame Design Musings


Where did you look? It has a large number of fans which is not the same thing.

So, is the point that fans do not know what "good" is and only know what they like. Interesting perspective...

Indeed, a classic war between populares and optimates (or so they like to believe).

Are these mutually exclusive sets or do they intersect?

There is a school of thought that the whole Impulse, Trumping, Momentum mechanic is a gamey mechanic that has nothing to do with the reality of what happened on the ground

I have always been amused by the 'gamey' criticism as all rules are 'gamey' by definition, but I understand what is meant. I'll be the first to admit that any game system is not perfect. I also know that a good game has to take a focus. A literal interpretation of the GBOH command system was never intended. In fact the system would work for any tactical system as what it is trying to portray is a deep abstraction and independent of era.

What was in my mind was to create an interactive sequence of play that acted as an extension of the player, through his leaders, to seize and dominate the timing of a battle. In the abstract the two players are trying to time their blows in such a manner as to win the battle. This historical perspective that I am taking in this system is there is a cognitive battle going on as to when you maneuver your various force elements. The superior general controls the tempo of the battle to his advantage. Taking the system literally misses the entire point.

The reason that you go from lowest to highest leader is it forces the poorer led force to show their tactical plan first and give the better leaders the ability to move in relation to their opponents plan whenever they see the time is ripe to do so. The superior generals, ala Alexander, can basically move whenever they want (first, second, last whenever). It allows a player to create complicated sequences of moves where the superior led force tends to gain the tempo and initiative advantage. Of course the dice love no one and there is always a small element of surprise (captures a host of friction of war types of events) that can waylay even the best plans.

As far as the momentum concept goes. How active an element is when it does get going? How well does the leader keep his forces under control? How a player answers these questions through his actions (as represented by dice versus leader capability) deterimines the extent of how effective a given maneuver can be. So a Companion cavalry charge under Alexander can sweep all before it, whereas a lesser light will have difficulties maintaining control and alignment forcing a slower pace and effect of a move. I have seen the criticism that forces once set in motion did not stop etc. However, I designed the entire GBOH system around the idea of relative motion. A force that misses a move is not actually stopped, but its relative motion to the other elements around it is much slower. It is an example of how one can treat time-space relationships in a design without a lot of rules. If one sees the world through a literal lens this is very unsatisfying and there is no way to convince someone with that view otherwise. But the idea that I designed this system to represent what the crtiques state it represents is just incorrect.

The line commands allow the system to give an army some basic capabilities relative to their doctrine, e.g., Roman, whereby any political hack can make a Legion do some basic stuff, but if the battle gets away from them, they have a limited set of options to react.

As I said, no game system is perfect. The GBOH command system is an abstract concept and by definition "gamey" as it is a game that in the aggregate captures the choreography of an ancient battle. It gives advantage to the side with the historically better leaders, but with the opportunity for the player to demonstrate superior gaming skills.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to throw down some thoughts on what I was trying to do when I designed it this way. I'm sure there are much better Igo-Hugo systems or impulse systems that capture some of these elements in a more palatable manner for some. The notion that popular equates to low brow is a concept that I cannot support, I will leave it to others to make their case on why so many people for over 15 years can be so wrong.


PS: It would be nice if we can agree up front that neither side will persuade the other that they are right and avoid the part of these discussions where it has to get personal before the discussion can end. I like to think that honest men can disagree.

Posted by markherman at 1:17 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 3 February 2008 1:18 AM EST
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Sunday, 27 January 2008
Sit Down, Play the Game, Stop Screwing Around...
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

One of the things that I have learned about game design is that you cannot leave an open ended mechanic without a finite end. The impetus for the thought is that some players seem only interested in ignoring the fact that they are playing an historical game and spend undue effort trying to find ways to distort the rules and frustrate their opponent. To what purpose is beyond me.

 A good example of what I am talking about is in my old Pacific War design where I put in a mechanic for penalty time, so players could recover forces when they had made slight miscalculations in logistic planning. I tried to ensure that this couldn't be used to ones advantage by removing the offensive players ability to conduct combat in penalty time. This way if the player messed around, the reaction player could launch a short range attack and start killing things until the pain of losses forced the player to shut things down.

 In works not only in theory, but in practice as I was once able to make an opponent (someone I did not know well at a convention) cry uncle when they tried to get cute with this tactic. What I would like to write is a rule that is called, sit down, play the game, and stop screwing around. As this is not enforceable, I have learned the lesson that all mechanics must have a enforced end even if there is a viable way around it, such as my solution in Pacific War. The reason being when there is no limit, its clear abuse frustrates most players spoiling a good time.


Posted by markherman at 10:37 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 27 January 2008 10:48 PM EST
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Welcome News
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

 As I never received any physical keepsake this is the only record of the award, posted so I wouldn't forget.


Walter Luc Haas-Award

The Walter Luc Haas-Award, given by the GHS members in Germany to the best board wargame of 2005, was won by 2 games this time:



Empire of the Sun

Congratulations to the designers and to GMT!


Posted by markherman at 7:41 PM EST
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Card Driven Game Thoughts
Topic: Wargame Design Musings

What Was I Trying To Simulate?

There are many things that can be simulated in a game and no game that I am aware of handles all of the details of conflict at the same level of detail in a user entertaining manner. A good simulation is one that picks out the key variables with easy to implement systems that let the player(s) manipulate them within an historical context. Additionally, the historical outcome and decisions should in some manner be within the set of game outcomes. In the end all simulations are wrong, but some are useful and hopefully entertaining.

But first a story, way back in the late seventies when I was designing what became RDF I got a chance to play the game with Jim Dunnigan. At the conclusion of the game Jim said it was interesting, but it felt it played like panzer chess. The comment referred to the fact that each maneuver he made was matched by a similar maneuver on my part resulting in two armored firing lines. I redesigned the game, but the point of the story is most games allow for near perfect information with lots of detail on a variety of force and spatial factors ala chess.

My continuing study of warfare both for game design purposes and professionally have convinced me that real combat is chaos because senior decision makers lack perfect knowledge. This has been the case for all wars including recent ones where people got killed because the real information was absent or not believed. The more successful commanders were those who were able to succeed in this constant environment of imperfect information. Consequently I have come to the view that the most important variable to simulate in a wargame is uncertainty.

I have tackled this problem in a variety of systems. In Pacific War I used hidden die rolls that integrated uncertainty as to the enemy reaction based on the intelligence condition. My most successful system has been my card driven design as embodied in We The People and For The People and copied by POG, 30YW, WW to name a few. What the cards accomplish is to create enourmous uncertainty about what the enemy can accomplish and how one's decisions might be impacted by the range of enemy reactions. By incorporating this imperfect information overlay into the more traditional force, space, and time factors interesting things happen. In addtion the cards allowed me to bring a range of soft factors (e.g., politics) into the simulation, which has ever been the original purpose of most wars. More importantly it appears that the entertainment value and replayability of the games have also been enhanced.

What is a good simulation of conflict? Is it one that develops systems for tactical trees, but misses the strategic forest. I submit that my card driven system is my attempt to simulate decision maker uncertainty in an imperfect information environment. From where I stand a game that ignores this set of variables has a harder time proving its simulation bona fides. This last point is definately a minority view in our hobby.

It is interesting that there is a perception that there is a flood of WTP/FTP derivative wargames out there, but there are less than 10 by my last count in ten years. During this same period of time there have been at least several hundred traditional wargames published. I am hard pressed to understand how this niche set of games is causing such a furor.

Just one man's view,


Posted by markherman at 7:40 PM EST
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