Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wargame Wednesdays - Chartless Combat

Wargame Wednesdays this week will follow up last week's discussion of the CRT with an overview of some of the combat systems used in board wargames, that don't rely on a combat chart.

I would like to investigate a few of these, starting with a game that *is* a wargame, albeit a rather simplistic one.  Risk (rules available here).

Staff and Friends of Gaming with Chuck enjoy a game of Lord of the Rings Risk
Risk, in all its many forms, consists of simply applying strength to the map (in the form of placing or moving armies), and then trying to use your "strength" to overpower that of your opponents.  There is a nice collection of the many different variants of Risk, linked to from the Board Game Geek entry on the original 1959 game. This is done by a simple combat mechanism that relies on compared dice rolls.  For the 2 persons in the world who might be reading a gaming blog, but for whom Risk has never happened, it works like this:  The active player has armies in a number of territories on the map.  On his turn, he can direct as many armies, from a territory, as he likes (except 1 - he must always leave at least 1 army in a territory), into an adjacent territory that has enemy armies in it.

  The attack is then played out in rounds, until either one side or the other is eliminated, or the attacker calls off the attack.  The attacker may roll up to 3 dice, but never more than one dice per attacking army (of course, he had to leave behind at least one to garrison the territory he moved from).  The defender may roll up to 2 dice, but never more dice than he has armies defending the territory.  Then the dice are compared - the highest dice are compared first, then the second highest (if each side rolled at least 2).  

The comparison is simple - highest roll wins, with a tied roll going to the defender.  The loser in this comparison loses an army.  Simple.  Elegant.  And, unfortunately, without a lot of room for modification.  There are variants of Risk that allow re-rolls, and those that allow for additional dice (but never more than the number of armies you have to lose), and those that allow bonuses to be applied to your own dice, and minuses to be applied to your opponents dice, but that is about it.  We will call this mechanism the "opposed dice roll" mechanism.

War at Sea from Avalon Hill (1975) is a multiple dice mechanism, but it is not an opposed dice mechanism.  Rather, each unit in War at Sea has two combat factors - Offense and Defense.  The Offense factor represents the number of dice that the unit would roll in combat against a target.  Each 6 inflicts damage, and each 5 inflicts disruption.  Each 6 rolled entitles the shooter to roll another d6 to see how much damage is done.  The Defense factor is how many damage points a target has.  Whenever a ship takes a Disruption result, at the end of the current combat round, it must return to a friendly port (at which point the Disruption marker is removed, but the ship is out of combat).  All 6s are resolved before 5s, so the ship will accumulate all damage from all shooters shooting against it in a current round (to see if it is sunk) before checking to see if it is disrupted and needs to return to port.  The combat is played in rounds - first the defender choosing which targets all of his shooters (which can be ships, air squadrons, or submarine) will shoot at.  Prior to the first round, there is a special round of ASW where all ships that can defend against submarines get to shoot at incoming submarines.  But the mechanism for rolling for, and determining hits/damage is the same.
 This technique can be called the "dice against target value" mechanism.  There are a lot of possible modifications that can be worked with this mechanism, such as altering the number of dice that a unit can roll (which happens in War At Sea, based on damage), or altering the target number that must be rolled.  The defense value of a target (which determines how many hits a unit can absorb before destruction, or in the case of War at Sea, how much damage, resulting from hits) can be modified.  So, even though this is, in some ways, a simpler mechanism than the opposed dice roll mechanism (simpler in that all dice rolls are against a single, static target value, or set of target values, rather than being at the shifting target of another dice roll), the fact that each unit has multiple factors (attack and defense), as well as the static target numbers, means that there can be more nuance and alteration representing shifting states in the combat.

In 1981, Frank Chadwick had a great (and to this day, still widely played) game design called "A House Divided" which also uses a chartless combat system.  There were a number of follow on designs (all published by GDW) that came after A House Divided (1981), including Soldier King (1982) and Attack in the Ardennes (1982), that used slight variations of the same system.  In this system, each unit has a basic combat value.  When it is attacking, it rolls a dice.  If the dice comes up equal to or less than the combat value, then a hit is scored on the enemy unit.  The combats are played in rounds, with the defender going first each round, and units being applied evenly before doubling up, but that is it.  Assign a unit, roll one dice, if it is less than your target number, you cause a hit.  Each game has different units that can take 1 or more hits, so the results of being hit vary with unit type.  Typically, when a unit is hit, it is reduced to a damaged state, and it's combat factor is reduced as well.  Some units (such as armor units in the Attack in the Ardennes game) have modifiers that are applied to the combat factor of those shooting against them (representing either large units, or in the case of tanks, heavy armor).
New version of A House Divided, showing Blue vs Grey on custom stands - the combat number for each unit can be seen, this is the target number for the dice throw to determine hits on the enemy.
 We can see that this system is also a "dice against a target value" system, but we will differentiate between this system, and that of War at Sea.  The difference is this - War at Sea has a "multiple dice against a target value" mechanism and House Divided has a "single dice against a target value" mechanism.This system allows for changes in the target number based on situation (for instance, against a heavy unit that as a modifier for it's enemies; against a unit in a defended area like a trenchline; or while making a hasty attack, like infantry vs cavalry, or across a river, or in bad weather, etc), and allows for different types of unit degradation by having specific values that a *hit* unit reduces to.  But that is it - not as many types of modification as with the "multiple dice against a target value", mostly because one of the variables - the number of dice - has been removed.

A  brief mention should be made of the wide family of Axis and Allies games (designed by Larry Harris, and first published in 1981 by Nova Games - the same year as A House Divided).  Again, these are often considered "simple" wargames by the hex-and-counter crowd (and they are, comparatively speaking), but they are also based on a "single dice against a target value" as with the Frank Chadwick system.  The biggest difference is in the complexity of the interaction between units and the map - there is a lot of detail and nuance in the Chadwick designs (and all the games that have come after them, there are a number from modern publishers), and the interaction between units and the map in the Axis and Allies family of games (which is very, very simple in comparison). A notable difference is that in Axis and Allies, and it's derived other titles, each unit as a target number based on whether it is on Offense or Defense.  On Defense, for instance, both Infantry and Armor units are trying to roll for the same target number, but on Offense, the target number for Armor allows for twice as many kills as an Infantry unit on Offense.  And so on for all the unit types.
Combat chart for Axis and Allies showing different target numbers for offense and defense.

As a further development of the "multiple dice against a target value" mechanism, there is a whole family of games, championed primarily these days by Columbia Games, but also frequently by other companies, especially GMT.  These are called, collectively, Block Games.  In this mechanism, a wooden block represents a military unit, and it stands up so it's current status and parameter level is only visible to the player owning the unit (typically).  When the unit gets into combat, it is laid down, as is the opposing unit(s), and both players can see the parameters.  The blocks are square, and have multiple values on them, based on damage levels to the unit, and the blocks can be rotated, the current state being the values on the side facing up when it is standing and facing the owning player.  These games frequently use multiple dice per unit, based on the damage state of the unit.  A full strength infantry unit, for instance, may have 4 strength points - meaning it could roll 4 dice in combat.  It would have a target number, which might be modified by the situation (terrain, type of attack, etc) or by the nature of the target unit.  An older design that uses this variation of the "multiple dice against a target value" mechanism is Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815, available from Columbia these days, but years ago it was available through Avalon Hill.  Originally the game was out from Gamma Two, but they became Columbia.
Obviously a solo game, as all of the units for both sides (French, and also British/Prussian) are facing the same way.  But the strength markers - dots - can be seen on the outside edge of each block, with the unit type represented by the symbol in the middle.

The interesting thing that is presented with the block games version of "Multiple Dice against a Target Value" is the attrition effect on the dice thrown.  And the (typically) mechanism for re-acquiring lost dice, through repair (reconstitution) of the units.  The types of modifications to the dice thrown and target numbers are very similar to other types of games using this mechanism, with the additional feature of the combat attrition affecting the dice thrown.  Earlier articles covered a variety of different block games and their mechanisms in Blocks of War I: Hellenes by GMT and then Blocks of War II: Wizard Kings.

The final variation on "Multiple Dice against a Target Value" is the alternative to the Block games from Richard Borg, the Command and Colors family of games.  In these games, each unit has a number of dice that it rolls (that, typically, is not affected by attrition), and each type of unit determines the results of the dice - which are varied and based on special dice, with special symbols indicating hits, retreats, morale effects, and so on.  The number of dice in these titles is modified by terrain, and sometimes by range, but not by the hits on the parent unit.  The dice results available are modified by situation (you can case a hit on a Sword in close combat, but not in missile combat), or by target type (Red Infantry Units ignore Sword hits), or by formation (if the target unit has two adjacent friendly units, it ignores the first Flag result).  So by using different symbols, for different results, a very varied, but nuanced to simulate the types of combat involved in the particular game, results.  This series of games, and the dice and their results was covered in an earlier article called Blocks of War III: C and C Ancients: Part 1, the Dice of War.  Since that time, Command and Colors: Napoleonics has been released.  Excellent game, but I think that my favorite in the series is still torn between Memoir: 44 and Ancients.

That's it for now on chartless combat.  I tried to move from Risk (a simple game, but with an opposed dice mechanism) up through a number of others, both easy and complex.  I tried to end covering a wide variety of Block games and eventually the Command and Colors series.

Next week on Wargame Wednesdays, a number of reviews of some excellent games from publishers in Virginia.

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