Thursday, July 20, 2017

Putting Physics into your Gaming, Part 1

The title, of course, has been selected to put the readership to sleep. But it is a fair description of a very personal approach I've adopted over the years.

In this approach, "putting physics into your gaming" does not mean things like detailed ballistic simulation in your arrows' and cannonballs' trajectories, or exaustive modelling of ground pressure to see if your T-34s can pass through the mud without getting stuck. It is more a mental and analytical process.

I'll try to explain (or, if there is too much, to sum up) using a Wavre scenario as an example, developed for the local event marking the 200th anniversary of the 1815 campaign. This battle is the poor relative where games of that eventful summer are considered. Waterloo was decisive for the fate of Europe, Ligny was Napoleon's last battlefield victory, Quatre Bras makes for a nice small game and gets a lot of attention in the english-speaker-dominated wargames world due to the presence of the British army, Wavre...has nothing catchy like that to offer. The only high stakes attached to the battle -if Grouchy's French will get through in time to help Napoleon at Waterloo- have no tangible presence in the action itself, which features a Prussian rearguard defending three bridges over an otherwise impassable river from its pursuers- as the historical action, a lot of the game is a series of frontal assaults in the teeth of hard resistance, not the most exciting of tactical problems to solve.

So, how to make this overlooked event an enjoyable game? This is where we start putting Physics into the mix.
First thing is a "literature review", i.e. getting your paws on as many accounts of the battle and campaign as easily possible. This builds an understanding of the greater context of the campaign, where the battle fits in it, and stocks up the memory banks with information that working on the scenario will utilise to shape into ideas. For some folks this will probably include looking at other people's scenarios for the battle, my preference is not to actively look out for them. Volley&Bayonet has a rather abstract and high-level approach to representing units and terrain compared to most other more traditional sets, which means they're not very easily compatible (although the past few years have seen several new sets imitating V&B's abstract approach, so that's changing). All the games for the anniversary would be based on Napoleon Returns, the V&B supplement on the campaign, so there was at least one in the pile of things to read anyway.

The second thing Physics contributes is a problemsolving process. In late high school and as a young undergraduate, teachers and professors were drilling particular techniques to use when trying to solve a problem or excercise. And more often than not the first steps were to determine Initial Conditions (=what your system starts like) and Boundary Conditions (=what are the limits, constraints and final states of your system). Solving the puzzle consists of determining either the Boundary Conditions that will result from the Initial Conditions ("If I release a lead ball from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, how fast will it be travelling when it hits my research assistant standing at its foot?") or the Initial Conditions that will bring about the desired Boundary Conditions ("How fast must I launch a rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome to escape Earth's gravitational pull?").
Does everyone understand this jargon so far?
Erm, yes, possibly. Those who are still awake are probably wondering what all this mumbo jumbo has to do with designing a game scenario. The answer is...well...everything:
Initial Conditions are how you start your game, Boundary Conditions are how you frame your game and how you frame winning the game.

Let's see this in action. What are the Initial Conditions? The scenario in Napoleon Returns begins at 3pm on June 18th. It's not unreasonable, since that's the time Grouchy's forces were complete and deployed (a bit of rummaging around online as I was writing this post shows most Wavre scenarios kick off at 3-4pm, probably for the same reason). The Prussians start deployed behind the river Dyle, in position to defend all the possible crossings.

How about Boundary Conditions? There are two kinds. The first are physical: the actual boundary of the map and the game's duration and ending time. The second kind are imposed: the game's victory conditions. Starting with the physical ones, let's look at a very simplified version of the scenario map (adapted from the more detailed one in Napoleon Returns):

It's a fairly large table, each square being 1' (=33cm). For a good part of the game the action takes place in the lower right corner, where the dark oblongs represent Wavre and its nearby villages, each of which borders a bridge over the Dyle river (the dark straight line). Marking the two armies' positions at the start of the game -Prussian blue and French tricolore- gives us this:

As to time, the game runs in two large phases, one lasting until nightfall on the 18th and second until 10am on the 19th. Historically, the French managed to get a foothold on the far side of the Dyle as darkness was falling on the 18th, and started pushing back the Prussians on the 19th until 10-11am when they found out about Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

You can see how the I.C. and the B.C. define the game: the Prussian begins in a strong position and sits and waits behind the bridges, while the Frenchman keeps throwing his troops at whichever is less defended. If he breaks through, he has ample room to maneuver behind the Prussians or move off the left table edge to help Napoleon at Waterloo, and the Prussian is then faced with the dilemma of holding on the the other crossing points or abandoning them to cover his rear (...that could have been phrased better).
This not a bad game, there is a fair bit of action and tense moments, but the first few rounds will see the defending players simply sitting there and throwing dice to see if their soldiers are holding off the French or not. For some -although by no means all- this may seem
and in my view it also doesn't put them entirely in the mindset of the general they're representing. On 18th June 1815 Thielmann, the commander of III Korps, had been ordered to follow the rest of the Prussian army to Waterloo and was in fact carrying out those orders -some of his units had even started to move off- when news of serious numbers of serious Frenchmen approaching forced him to stand his ground at Wavre, redeploy and defend the riverline. Here he starts hunkered down ready for a defensive fight, against significantly superior numbers (call that an additional informal Initial Condition, if you will).

The final Boundary Condition is how to win. Not unexpectedly, this is for the French to decisively beat the Prussians. Napoleon Returns gives a bit of leeway, allowing the group running the game the flexibility of defining their own specific victtory conditions- however this could result in unwelcome ambiguity if the players are inexperienced or prone to vagueness themselves.

Part 2 (following soon) will describe the changes to the Initial and Boundary Conditions that resulted in a much different scenario- and a very enjoyable game.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Mulligan

In the words of Douglas Macarthur, "I have returned".
In the words of Lois Lane, "I didn't notice you were gone".

Back when this blog started, I wrote "let's see if the laziness that has stalled all my attempts at creating a website has met its match"....obviously not.  

But maybe the second time's the charm, so let's take another run at it. First of all, some catching up. We lost one of our little player triumvirate as he went and got himself happily married. However the remaining duo turned into the nucleus of a small gang, and there's about a half-dozen of us now, meeting relatively regularly, pushing tin and plastic and generally getting on each other's nerves.

We did get 'round to playing the Schellenberg eventually, although not in the exact version we'd been designing as by that time we had already begun to veer into the Seven Years War and Napoleonics. A few of us had a large and beautifully made 20mm collection for the period, and they were quickly repurposed into Volley&Bayonet-compatible stands. Three of us also joined a gaming club (contractually obligated plug: , legally mandated warning: it's in greek) which gave us a large gaming space that -most importantly- didn't also serve as someone's dining room, and came complete with storage space. So off we went, playing everything from Sacile to Fontenoy to Napoleon's brilliant but doomed battles defending France in 1814 (with the occasional non-V&B colonial, WWI or air combat game) .

But the crowning achievement in this whole shebang was the 200th anniversary of the 100 Days. With the befuddled but firm support and encouragement of the rest of the club, in June 2015 we set up and played all four significant battles of the campaign, one on each Saturday, culminating in a Waterloo refight with all told about a dozen players passing around the table and two thousand figures on it. This is what it looked like:

We were very happy gamers indeed.

I got a little bit of gaming burnout after that, to be honest, and dropped off, but the rest of the conspirators kept the flag flying and other metaphors, and they've finally brought me back into the fold. And one of the first things they said was "hey, how 'bout that blog, d'you still have it?". we are. Let's see how it will go- as Ian Anderson once wrote "some things reheat even better second time 'round".