Wednesday, 26 April 2017

My friend Oliver and me

When I wrote recently of my experiences playing SPI's "RAID!" I was taken to task by a wargaming friend I met through WD (his name isn't Oliver, by the way. More of that later).

He (that's the wargaming friend, not Oliver) challenged me on two points:

1) The criticism of the SPI house rule writing style was unfair
2) How had tactical wargames "moved on" since the 1970s?

After a brief Facebook exchange I thought that I needed to go away and collect my thoughts and revisit these two particular criticisms.

Is there a problem with the SPI house rules style?
One of the issues here is that I was playing the "RAID!" scenario as a crossover from board game to figure game, and I tend to see all rule writing as a single skill. Having said that, I think it is true that the rules of these two types of game aren't often written in the same style, so maybe different skill sets are required. In any event their purpose is to convey to someone who isn't present with you how to play or operate a simulation that in its operating parameters is likely to be quite complex. There is then a secondary issue that rules tell you what you can and can't do; they don't necessarily tell you how to play the game.

By way of explanation think about chess. The rules are very simple. Movement is unique to each piece, of which there are six. There are two special moves, the first for a pawn and the second, castling. Combat resolution is simple; with the exception of en passant you take a piece by moving on to its square. The game is won by stopping your opponent's King piece moving. What none of that tells you is how you go about actually winning the game. The massive literature about Chess is not about the rules, it is all about the tactics.

What this means is that there is often a moment when playing a game when it clicks, and you realise that if you do "x", then you can do "y", and so what might be called "rules based tactics" emerge. Sometimes rules based tactics, particularly in figure games, are the subject of dispute, and are often termed "gamesmanship" if they do nothing that looks like an historical tactic and may run contrary to what the original game designer intended.

This is less of a problem in most board games unless they have a mechanism that has been overlooked that means there's a sure fire way of winning. You can see this on Board Game Geek when some forum members gleefully opine that such and such a game is broken. Sometimes it is, sometimes it's because the individual hasn't actually read the rules properly.

SPI were in the business of producing complicated games. Even simple games from their stable have a lot of moving parts that need to be explained. They dealt with this by developing a house style that looks a lot like a legal document. Their style is methodical and attempts to leave as little as possible to chance or misinterpretation and aims to be thorough and complete.

Alas, for those games published in S&T magazine the added pressure of producing games to a strict schedule meant that inevitably even the best play tested of the stable of games had a few errors slip through, and as a subscriber I eventually gave up playing new games as they arrived and left them until the next magazine arrived with the errata (to see how essential this became, try to find the errata to "Armada").

In the end I felt the rules were just too long winded. It might have been "Sniper" that finally did for me, but I do remember laughing out loud when the rules for "RAID!" told me that you couldn't transfer Observation Points between units. Clearly it was insufficiently obvious that two people standing together couldn't see twice as far as one person on their own.

Having made my criticisms I then was asked to bring forward my list of much better written, clearer sets of board game (or possibly even figure game) rules. Ah. Good point. My initial reaction was that there must be loads out there.

Problem is that often it's hard to make a fair comparison. Some of the games with the clearest rules are clear simply because they're simple games (Never had a problem with "Takenoko" or "Forbidden Island". "Agricola", less so). When you start looking at games covering subjects of the complexity in the typical SPI game then it does become more difficult to find good examples of rules writing. One of the more interesting board game/wargame crossovers of recent years have been Martin Wallace's "Waterloo" and Gettysburg". In style and layout the rules are very different to SPI, making use of colour and DTP techniques that would have been prohibitively expensive to SPI back in the 70s. Martin succeeds in explaining the game clearly, and I also had an idea of how to win the game by the time I'd finished reading the rules. The rules have more in common with a modern euro game than a 1970s hex based wargame. But even then, the game isn't as complex as, for example, "Seelowe" or "Cobra" or "Sniper".

Phil Barker once remarked that the problem with plugging holes in rules is like filling a hole in a wall. You start off with one crack, and by the time the filler has dried out you end up with two slightly finer cracks. It was that realisation, I think, which lead him to simplify his rules systems so he could write shorter, simpler rules. His attempt to keep rules as short as possible whilst being unambiguous has opened him to a lot of criticism over "Barkerese". As someone who spent a lot of his working life reading legal documents I can say he is no worse than highly paid professionals trying to cover all the issues as best they can.

So where does that get me? Honestly I would say that my increasing dislike of hex games of that style and complexity over time has lead me to judge the SPI rule writing methodology more harshly than I should have done. It is fair to say that if you want to design and play that type of game, then the SPI methodology hasn't, in my experience, been improved upon, and my friend was correct to pull me up on that matter.

Tactical Wargames since the 1970's
So, what did I mean when I said games had "moved on"? Well, I suppose in someways I'm certainly wrong here. Advanced Squad Leader still seems to be available, and I would guess that Squad Leader & then ASL is the standard by which all low level tactical modern games need to be judged. So for the board wargamer, games have not "moved on".

Which is a bit of a problem as I don't play ASL, and it's so long since I tried it I couldn't even begin to comment. Plus, my experience of low level tactical games is more figure than board game based anyway.

And I have played or watched a fair few of this type of figure game.

There is a school of thought on TMP that low level skirmish games with 28mm figures are the only true wargaming. You can get the figures and scenery in perfect sync in terms of ground and figure scale and the size of figure lets you see exactly what your figure has. Consequently there's a bit of discussion around this sort of thing. However, true platoon/company level games actually work better, to my mind, with multi-figure bases and in 15mm as that models unit dynamics better (and, of course, is how "RAID!" is set up).

I would say that there's a number of things in "RAID!" which certainly paint it clearly as not a modern, 21st century tactical wargame. The first would be the absence of any type of morale rules. This is justified in the game as not being necessary as the troops involved are special forces. Well, no. Only one side is special forces (they're commando style raids), so the other side are regular or garrison troops. Using the out of command rules as a substitute doesn't cut it.

Next, troop activation is a bit too certain. Okay, so players take an initiative roll each turn, but otherwise you chose the sequence you want to move and fire stuff and it happens unless you get shot. That's not the case in PBI, IABSM or "Bolt Action" as far as I can remember (although it did in the original "AK47 Republic", but that's a special case).

The lack of differentiation in troop quality, - such as the common Raw/Average/Veteran is something else that you would also expect to see nowadays. In fact, there's a virtual complete absence of chrome, which again is something quite rare these days.

And that CRT, - well, I think most low level games at least contemplate the chance of missing your target these days, regardless of how good things get.

All of which isn't to say things are better. I mean "Bolt Action" has that dice drawing from a bag thing that seems pointless, and the crazy business with lines of sight, that has players resorting to laser pointers.

So, yes, I do think we have moved on. All the things I've touched on aren't necessarily present in all games, but their absence in "RAID!" continues to mark it out as a period piece. I do not think that if it was to be designed today it would turn out the way it did. If it was, I think it would be a hard sell. That may say more about the shallowness of the modern wargamer than anything about the merit of the design.

And what about Oliver? Well he wrote to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in August 1650, saying "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken". It's a good rule, even when you're fairly sure of yourself. I have considered on this matter, and this is my view.


  1. Perhaps the rules writer for Raid was thinking players might apply a Newton quote to stacked units.

    1. Russel King is Facebook Friends with him, so you could get him to ask.

    2. That's all rather nicely put.

      My issue with Board Wargame rules was that the addenda/errata which invariably followed addressed complete non-issues for me (my reaction was always 'well yes that's bleedin' obvious').

      However I invariably had issues with every game (it is impossible to be watertight) and no piece of errata for any game ever resolved them. I clearly had a brain which worked in a very idiosyncratic fashion.



    3. Thanks for taking the trouble to read it. It's a long piece with no pictures, after all.

      The annoying errata are things like units starting in the wrong place, and the inclusion of otherwise of negative qualifiers, such as "non".

      There's a super errata for RAID! which pints out the some "+" modifiers on the "Range Attenuation Table" (?) should be "-".