Friday, October 7, 2016

Valley Forge - review

“Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect - We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die: Our own Country's Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions - The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”
― George Washington

[This is another review in the Once and Future Rules series, of wargame rules that are out of print, but that got a lot of play at one time (at least, in the clubs and groups I played in since the early 1980s).  This one is less like the others I have written, in that this set of rules is not one that I have played a lot, but I still find it (at least personally) influential.  I would like to discuss why.]
The frontpiece - the cover is a lovely color version of the same painting,
but mine has a big SALE sticker on it

Let me start this by saying that I would be surprised to find gamers who are currently still playing Valley Forge.  However, I have fond memories of this ruleset, and it has a fascinating history (and conceptual lineage), so I would like to say a few things about it.

This is from the set I own, which is Valley Forge, published in 1976 by TSR.  I purchased my set from a hobby store (the still operating Denbigh Hobby, in Newport News, Virginia) back around 1981, while I was in high school. This was in reaction to having purchased and painted maybe a dozen or so 25mm American War of Independence figures (probably Hinchliffe figures, but possibly Minifigs - they had come from open packages, and were repacked in plastic baggies, which made them much more affordable for my high school student budget).  A second edition (Valley Forge II) was published the same year by Dave Wesely, the Author of the rules, by himself.  I have never seen a copy of that edition.

David Wesely - author of Valley Forge
This is a set of rules that has (according to both the introduction written by Dave Arneson, and a blurb on Boardgame Geek) inspiration taken by the author, from a much older set of rules from the US Army, written in the 1880s by Lt. Totten.  These were based on the Kriegspiel rules.  A good history of wargaming from that time is found in a book chapter that I co-wrote on the history of combat models and simulation (1).  That source does not mention Totten, but it mentions some of the other developments that came out of the Kriegspiel rules in the 19th century.
Towards that end (rules based on Kriegspiel), the Valley Forge rules make perfect sense - they are a tabletop simulation of combat during the American War of Independence, with particular detail to the number of actions that can take place in a 1 minute turn.  Also, the (mostly) deterministic nature of combat is based on the number of casualties that a volley of fire, from 100 men, can result against a massed enemy infantry unit, at different ranges.  So, for instance, the movement and volley rates are given for infantry for a 1 minute turn.  An example - British infantry can fire 6 rounds with a Brown Bess musket, in a turn, if performing Rapid Fire.  An American Rifleman with a Kentucky Rifle can only fire once in the same period, but at a range of 25 inches (250 yards), will be 42x as likely to inflict a casualty.  The rules are not wholly deterministic.  There are some random factors, and also a method for determining the chance of a Probability based activity being successful.

Why is this important?  Because it illustrates that rules designed to be a simulation (as all in the Kriegspiel family are) first, and a game second, will be excruciatingly detailed in things that are important for the simulation to show.  In the case of Kriegspiel, to allow Officers in training to make realistic decisions about battlefield conditions, based on how effective troops behave.  In the case of Valley Forge, it is to allow wargamers to see what the realistic behavior of the troops were on a Colonial American battlefield.  All games, especially wargames, are somewhat of a simulation - but equally, all simulations are based on abstract models.  Typically, it serves the community of gamers who will play a wargame to include more abstraction and introduction of random elements (dice, cards, etc) to make the game "fun" and to introduce a sense of chance that we like in our hobby pursuits.  Valley Forge has less of that, and is much more detail oriented - closer to a simulation, than a game (if you allow there to be a continuum).

Some particulars of the rules - they are designed for 25mm figures; 1 turn is 1 minute; 1 inch is 10 yards; 1 figure represents 30 men.

Here is the turn sequence -
  1. Referee gives information and messages to players
  2. Players write orders
  3. Players declare orders, perform initial volleys, and announce charges.
  4. Simultaneous movement
  5. Effects of fire are calculated
  6. Effects on morale from movement and casualties are calculated
  7. Final volleys calculated
  8. Melee is fought, if applicable, and results applied
  9. The referee may execute through steps 6-8, for isolated parts of the battlefield, before returning to the whole scene, if appropriate. 
So, a number of things that would turn off a modern gamer (simultaneous movement, order writing, requiring a referee, deterministic casualties, and realistic times to reload and fire artillery - many turns in between shots, for all but the smallest pieces).

Okay, so why am I writing a review of a set that I never played in a club or at a convention, and only halfheartedly tried at home?  Because of the detail and research that David Wesely invested in his rules.  He was a graduate student in Physics at the time that these were put together, and he would go on to take a commission in the US Army and work at Aberdeen, and other places.  This certainly means he appeals to my Engineering Professor persona, but also a wargamer he appeals to my attraction to accurate military historical detail.  The musketry information, and other information in Valley Forge has been raided by yours truly over the years for rulesets I have put together myself, albeit with mechanics that were closer to a Game than to a Simulation (more random chance involved, and more abstract results).

As a wargamer, I would prefer to play British Grenadier, or Black Powder, or any of a number of rules (including some coming up in this series of reviews, such as Koenig Krieg), but I have fond memories of Valley Forge.  Mostly because it was the first scholarly wargame I ever encountered, and also because of the tie to Kriegspiel type rules, and mostly because of the debt for the scholarship that I owe David Wesely.

(1) Margaret Loper and Charles D. Turnitsa: “A History of Combat Modeling and Distributed Simulation,” Chapter 10 in Tolk (ed.) Engineering Principals of Combat Modeling and Distributed Simulation. Wiley & Sons, 2012.


DHBoggs said...

Cool. Thanks for posting that. It would be interesting to know a bit more as to why you would prefer the other games you mentioned.

Charles Turnitsa said...

Thanks for you kind comment! So, here is an explanation of what other sorts of rules I like. Every ruleset is, of course, a model of combat. And a model makes some necessary abstractions. If you pair that consideration with the limits of playing a game (where a move, in a miniatures game, will physically take a certain amount of time - so a game only will have such and such a number of turns in an evening game; or where the impact of player decisions and combat actions are magnified so that you can see their results quicker), then the abstractions should be in the area of allowing you to play a game, in a reasonable time, but still see the effects and impact of your decisions on the battlespace, and maybe have a chance at game resolution in an evening (for a club night game) or a long afternoon (for a more ambitious weekend or convention game).

In that light, games for me that abstract the time/ground scale enough so that the player initiated actions are resolved pretty quickly, seem to play better. In addition, combat adjudication (whether from one dice roll, to multiple dice throws, or card flips, or whatever) work best if they are something that can be handled with a minimum fuss of table consultation. All that tends to make (for me anyway) a better game. That is why I like British Grenadier (almost everything is on one table) or Black Powder (you can memorize most of the pertinent rules issues, and only need a unit roster). But in both cases, you can play a moderate battle to completion in 3 hours or so.