Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

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Napoleonic Warfare and gaming
Haven't made a big post in a while so here's an attempt to pull some notes together.

I'm spending a lot of time right now working through Chandler's Campaigns of Napoleon, which has both detailed stories of Napoleon's campaigns as well as a good general discussion of how Napoleon fought. It is all quite interesting, but what I keep thinking is how difficult it would be to actually design a good game that encompasses all of these ideas.

Trying to summarize a large and meaty subject is difficult, and is going to lack some detail, but here goes.

- His armies were organized into divisions that were essentially self-contained armies, with cavalry, infantry, and artillery. This meant that a detached force could actually survive in the field for an extended period of time without support. Chandler states pretty clearly that these forces could defend themselves for an extended period of time from much larger forces.

- Napoleon's armies would advance strategically across a very wide front, sometimes hundreds of kilometers across, throwing out skirmishers and light cavalry in large numbers to find the enemy and prevent the enemy from finding his own forces. With such a wide front, his objectives were often obscured from the enemy.

- As they got closer to the actual objective, they'd start to converge on a smaller front. (He typically had done a huge amount of research about opponents, terrain, and troops, so he often had a very clear idea of where he wanted to fight opponents, but he also did so much research that he could quickly change plans and pick alternative locations.)

- When his scouts found the enemy forces, he wanted to force a decisive battle, and he would quick march his troops to get them into position. He was the master of the force march, disrupting enemies by moving faster than they expected. If the enemy's forces were separated into multiple armies, he wanted to move quicker than the enemy to concentrate forces to destroy each army one at a time before the other army could intervene.

- His preferred battlefield strategy was to flank. He would use a division to pin the enemy in a particular location, forcing them to fight it. Ideally, the would draw enemy reserves. He would throw out scouts to keep the enemy in the dark while he moved forces around on a flank. Then, when the forces were in position and the enemy reserves in play, they would trigger a prearranged signal (such as a particular artillery barrage). His main and flanking forces would charge in swiftly with a shock assault, breaking the enemy, disrupting their morale, and then he'd roll up the lines.

I've identified some of the interesting game problems, without necessarily coming up with better solutions for how to game them.

- Imperfect knowledge: Ye olde fog of war. You might know for certain what's going on near you, but you doesn't really know what's going on 30 or 100 miles away. At best you can send scouts out to try to find the enemy or deny him from finding your army.

- Data lag: This is the second and more significant part of fog of war. Even when you send your scouts out, or a flanking force out, the information you get from those scouts doesn't get to you instantly. They have to send messengers to get information back to you. So, as a battlefield commander you are getting messages sent at different times from different people and have to make sense of it all.

- Morale: It takes effort to motivate men and get them into position. If you surprise men, their morale takes a hit. If you are an inspiring leader, your men can force march harder and faster than the other guy, deal with lack of food and other supplies.

- People do not move like automated machines in perfect straight lines on perfect terrain. They don't move at the same speed without real effort. They stumble. They have to go around small obstacles. You have to periodically redress your lines. Even learning to march (again) was one of the major innovations of the 18th century. This one is primarily a complaint about real-time computer games. And I've spoken a little before about wanting to do a real-time game where units actually have momentum; where a charge actually drives their lines back.

Morale and movement are two points why I think a division could hold out against superior forces for an extended period of time. It takes time to marshal troops to fight them, and if they've got artillery, you probably can't charge into artillery even with superior forces. I suspect good terrain was likely part of their survivability as well. I would love to find a more detailed explanation of their survivability against difficult odds.

Anyway, in a lot of board games and computer games, these concepts don't exist or exist in very simple forms. You generally know where your opponents are or find out as soon as combat gets executed. Units move at a fixed speed. Morale and supply are sometimes implemented as separate concepts but not always well.

Worth mentioning some of the ways they have been implemented, although this isn't a complete list.

* Fog of war: using blocks or counters or some other unit marker to denote some sort of enemy force, without telling you what's in it. So you can see your opponent's units moving around, but until you probe it or fight it, you don't know what it actually is.

* Morale is factored into some of the more interesting real-time games, such as Warhammer: Dawn of War. Weapons in that game did both morale damage and health damage, so you could obliterate a unit or break its morale and make it flee.

* A lot of Napoleonic board games combine health and morale and fighting ability, meaning that you aren't necessarily killing every soldier, you break enough of them that they fight at a reduced level, retreat, or flee (which may simply remove them from the map).

* Supply was one of my favorite parts of Conquest: Frontier Wars, which was a space game. Your units needed to bring supply ships with them or periodically return to bases to resupply. A ship out of supplies was incredibly vulnerable.

* My Borodino boardgame does a few interesting things: you get supply points to reinforce units (which is also necessary to keep your army leaders supplied and able to give orders). It uses blocks to hide unit names or strengths until you get into combat, so you can try to confuse an enemy with deceptive attacks. And last, it has interesting terrain rules that limit how many forces can move from one sector to another in a single turn, and how many units can occupy a single sector, which gives you time to see attacks massing, and also makes it more difficult to completely overrun a position in a short period of time.

* I worry that in most games, dividing your forces doesn't work because it is too easy to defeat each unit individually. Sometimes because that's the "real time strategy" model -- commands are given and acted on instantly, and units don't need time to muster, to organize, and to march.

As far as minis games go, one of my thoughts is that minis games are often fought on too tactical a scale. Line up the two lines and fight, see who breaks first. You don't have enough scale to move scouting units, and even if you do, you rarely have enough of a double-blind game going to hide such movements from the enemy. I'm wondering how to step up one level and also include more of the grand tactics. Blucher has at least one set of rules that cover both minis and larger scale movement, so that's a possible avenue to pursue for ideas. Blucher ALSO does a nice job of letting uncommitted forces move quickly into position.

I wonder if at the end of the day, I'm looking for too much in a single game or simulation. Wanting to both simulate the large scale pieces, and the smaller scale battles. To have great strategic movements of armies, then the smaller grand tactical movements, and finally charging up that damn hill.

One idea I've had would be to treat expeditionary forces as "story events", similar to King of Dragon Pass and a few other such games. Meaning, when you send a force off to perform some task, you don't get to see those troops and micromanage them. Instead, you get periodic messages from your subordinates based on what they found. And then you have to send orders back. It would require a little bit of an engine to figure how how to write the messages and give orders, but it could be interesting. It also gives an opportunity for the game engine to delay or stop a message from being received. Even more, the commander might have to choose which messages to read and respond to first. I'm thinking forward to something like Waterloo.

When it comes right down to it, I think the pieces I'm thinking about the most are:
- Present a limited view of the battlefield so that the commander cannot see every unit under their command or try to micromanage every single unit. They are forced to interact with subordinates.
- Units have morale and movement that feels a little more "organic".
- As much as possible, double blind.

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Adding: delays are not just in communication but also in marching and logistics. One story of Napoleon has him sending reserve ammo up the road because he thought he might need to fight there

Also if lines of communication and logistics are interesting, cutting them can be useful.

Basically a lot of this is about making maneuver, logistics, scouting, and communication interesting.

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