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Board wargames – an introduction (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 28, 2015

Historical boardgames are called by various names: wargames, conflict-simulation games (or simply, conflict-simulations, or con-sims), adventure games, military history games, simulation games, etc. There are a variety of near and distant relations of historical boardgames.

The typical wargame situation places the players at the beginning of major historical battle or campaign, e.g., the battle of Waterloo (Napoleon vs. Wellington), or Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). The opposing players have forces corresponding to the historical situation, which they then move around on the mapboard, and engage in combat according to an established set of procedures and rules. The preponderance of historical boardgames deal with land battles or campaigns, where sea or air elements play little or no part.

Historical boardgames typically include the following components: a map of geographical terrain divided into hexagons ("hexes") to regularize movement and combat procedures; one-hundred to four-hundred colour-coded, die-cut, 1/2" x 1/2" "counters", some of which represent the "units" which fought in the battle or campaign, e.g., regiments, brigades, or divisions, and others which serve as game-markers with different functions; and the above mentioned set of rules. A "unit" will typically have a "combat factor", a numerical quantification of its strength (e.g., "4") in comparison to all other units that fought in the battle or campaign, and a "movement factor", a numerical quantification of how far it can move in a given turn (e.g., "5"). There are a variety of types of terrain, some of which cost extra movement points to enter or cross.

The terrain scale chosen is usually such that no more than one, two, three, or four units can occupy the same hex at the end of the player's movement, thus rewarding effective dispersal and concentration of forces.

The typical wargame is played sequentially, in "phases". Generally, one player gets to move any or all of his units and attack eligible enemy units if he wishes, and then the other player moves his units and attacks eligible enemy units, and so forth.

Combat is resolved via the Combat Results Table (CRT) and the roll of a six-sided or (sometimes) ten-sided die. First, the player calculates the number of combat factors he can bring to bear on adjacent enemy units. The general objective is to get the best odds possible while making the most effective series of attacks. Combat results usually require a retreat of one or two hexes in a certain direction, an "exchange" (at least one unit of both players is eliminated), or the elimination of all of either players' units involved in this particular combat. Elimination represents the shattering of the effective operational structure of a military unit, not the killing of every single soldier in the unit. 8 combat factors attacking 3 combat factors makes 2:1 odds (rounding is generally done in favour of the "non-active" player who is "defending" in that phase, regardless of the over-all situation on the board). These are usually fairly poor odds, with some chance of a negative result for the attack. Experienced players can utilize the various capabilities of their units, e.g., the ability of units representing armoured formations to advance 1 hex after combat, to maximum effect, thus creating situations where weaker attacks can achieve better results.

An important feature of many games are the rules for units' Zones of Control (ZOC's), the six hexagons surrounding the hex the unit is on, which typically block the retreat paths of the opposing player's units during combat; as well as forcing the other player's units to stop during their movement phase. Typically, a unit which is required to retreat as a result of combat, but which cannot do so because it is surrounded by hostile ZOC's, is eliminated instead. ZOC's are crucial for constructing successful defensive perimeters because of their ability to interdict opponent's movement. Sometimes ZOC rules require that all friendly units adjacent to enemy units must attack all of those enemy units, which makes the distribution of units' attacks crucial to success. (The combat factors of individual units are in most cases indivisible.)

The endless variation and layering on of more complex rules and combat mechanisms (e.g., ranged combat -- the delivery of combat factors beyond adjacent hexes; an additional movement segment for armoured units; or in-hex combat, where strong attacking units try to "over-run" weak defenders) requires an increasing level of skill from the players, and increases the demands on making a truly skilful use of the forces and capabilities one has available. (A simple example of such skill is the landing of a German paratroop division in Paris in a game on the 1940 Battle of France campaign, thus ending the game immediately -- if the French player has been so careless as to leave Paris open.) Another complicating rule is logistics and supply effects, which means that if units cannot meet certain supply criteria, e.g., the tracing of a line free of enemy ZOC's to a supply centre (usually a hex on the map representing a city), their combat and movement abilities are more or less severely downgraded (for example, they cannot move or attack).

Once a person has grasped the basic dynamic of the sequence of play (you move as many of your eligible units as you wish; you set up a series of attacks on your opponent's units; you execute those attacks and carry out their effects -- then your opponent moves their eligible units; they set up a series of attacks; and then they carry out their effects -- before passing the baton to you again as a second game-turn begins) play follows easily for the ten or so turns an average simple game lasts.

One of the interesting aspects of the game is that movement, generally-speaking, is never compulsory (and attacks on adjacent enemy units are not usually compulsory either) so a player is open to try a wide variety of strategies in a game where forces are more-or-less evenly balanced. In a game of unbalanced forces, for example, on the September 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Polish player's skill would consist in an adroit placement (if playing with a free-deployment rather than strictly historical scenario) and fall-back of his army, rather than on making a large number of successful attacks. Victory in game terms would be theirs if the Germans failed to achieve their historical result of a complete victory. There could also be "alternative history" scenarios – for example, assuming the Poles had managed to mechanize all thirteen of their cavalry brigades; or, the French actually beginning their promised major offensive in mid-September; or, Stalin at the last moment deciding to intervene against Nazi Germany.

However, many historical boardgames are designed so that both players get a chance to make big attacks at some point in the game, for example, where a large force is attacking a small force which is quickly being reinforced. Some historical conflicts which correspond to such a situation are the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Gettysburg, and (to some extent) the Battle of Waterloo, which is yet another reason why there have been so many games on those topics.

The interweave of different unit capabilities; different aspects of warfare simulated (such as supply, morale, and command control considerations); and a plethora of different historical settings (e.g., World War II; Napoleonic; etc.), as well as different levels of war (tactical, operational, and strategic, to name the main three) allow for an enormous amount of variety in the atmosphere, flavour, and particular stratagems or tactics used to secure victory in these games.

However, if a person finds these games difficult even at the most introductory level, or lacks interest in history, or vehemently feels that conflict-simulation is immoral, or simply views these games as a useless waste of time, they are not likely to find much enjoyment in the hobby.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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