RogerBW's Blog

Chain of Command: At the Sharp End 06 February 2014

At the Sharp End is the campaign supplement for the excellent Chain of Command platoon-level wargame.

Opinions differ on campaign systems for wargames. At one end is the holy grail I chased for years: a nested set of games, such that you can start at one end of the scale with Hitler deciding to invade Russia and resolve all the way down, in increasing detail, until you get to a guy crouching behind a wall in the mud trying to get that Russian. BattleTech and Renegade Legion attempted something like this, growing increasingly abstracted systems from their tactical beginnings. At the other end is something very simple that takes the forces surviving at the end of one battle and works out what's available for the next one.

At the Sharp End is definitely towards the latter end of the scale. Its basic model is the "ladder": starting generally from a neutral point, each side attempts to progress from the enemy outposts, through main defences, to fighting against withdrawals and counter-attacks, and lastly the assault on the final objective. (These neatly map to the six standard scenarios in the main Chain of Command rules.) In some cases only part of the ladder is available; a campaign starting with an amphibious landing is simply going to end if the attackers are pushed back off the beach.

There are three levels of sophistication that can be attached to this, depending on how much preparatory work one wants to do. Having no map at all is workable, but makes the choice of terrain for each battle fairly arbitrary. A simple map is just a rough description of what each area is like (village, mountain passes, small oasis, etc.) which is enough to set up terrain in a plausible way. (It's also the sort of level of information that one can easily get from soldiers' journals.) A full map game uses a real map, ideally a large-scale historical one of around 1:25,000 or 1:50,000, and places battlefield areas on it. Depending on the details of those battlefields, the scenarios may be moved into a different order, and support options may be constrained, to reflect the real-world terrain... though of course this is all fairly fuzzy and up to the players.

The next chapter deals with the conduct of the campaign. It's all, deliberately, quite abstract: one campaign turn encompasses one game on the table and whatever time may pass between that and the next one, and there's no large-scale map movement or consideration of resupply. I believe the thinking is that, if you wanted to play a bigger game with logistics and strategic movement rates, you'd play that game, not something that's an add-on to a tactical game.

In each turn, then, the attacker (whoever won the last battle) can choose from several options: broadly, he can push forward, in which case the defender can choose to fight or retreat, or consolidate his current position, in which case he hands initiative to the defender who can counter-attack or strengthen his own defences.

The explanation of movement on the ladder is a bit unclear; in effect, these choices happen in the gaps between scenarios. If A has won scenario 2 but lost scenario 3, B's attack in return will hit scenario 2 again, though from the other side as far as attack and defence are concerned. (It probably won't be on the same bit of terrain, which jars a bit with the idea of fighting across real-world maps.)

A defender can choose to give ground before he knows what the attacker will do (in which case he retreats in good order and can strengthen his defences at the next stopping point), or when the attacker declares his advance, which is a more hasty action. It would have been handy to have an actual listed turn sequence for all these options, rather than their being spread out across multiple paragraphs on different pages; it's a bit of a jumble of actions that are thematically linked but happen at different times, and some sort of sequence chart (rather than the summary table of the actual die rolls needed) would have been very helpful. I'm appending one to the end of this review.

In Chain of Command, ordinary soldiers are either active or "killed"; here the latter status is expanded to include men who've been wounded, or perhaps have helped an injured fellow off the field. Any "dead" troops are split three ways: half are permanently out of action, a quarter are wounded enough to miss the next battle, and a quarter are available immediately (with a bonus to this for the side with a higher Force Morale rating at the end of the previous battle).

I'm not entirely convinced by this ladder system. It's fine as long as one side is winning, but if there's a reversal of fortunes it seems odd that the scenarios should stay in the same linear track. I'd like to see some support for a tree structure, where winning scenario A lets you move on to B, but losing it lets you try to salvage things with C.

The third section is for me the real meat of the system, dealing with the effects of war on the men fighting it. While this certainly isn't a role-playing game, it does involve a sort of character generation, particularly for the platoon's commander and its senior NCOs. Background tables are given for British, German, American and Russian officers and men, which may have some game effect but mostly supply colour. Age and appearance are also generated, and there's a rough-and-ready system for inspiring names.

The really clever bit about this whole thing, though, and the reason I bought the campaign rules, is the measure of success, which is split three ways. From the platoon commander's point of view, these are: what the battalion commander thinks of him, what his men think of him, and what he thinks of himself.

These can diverge. The battalion commander mostly cares about objectives, and his opinion influences support, reinforcements and medals; the men mostly care about casualties, and their opinion influences force morale and command radius; the platoon commander has to avoid either depression from failure or overweening ambition from success. His is the most complex system to track, with a two-dimensional chart of outlooks ("content", "popular", "reckless", "jealous", etc.); he starts somewhere near the middle of this, and moves around it as he wins or loses battles. The chart is colour-coded, and effectively contains six results: -2 to +2 on the Force Morale roll, or relieved of command. Beyond that, it's up to the player to take the outlook descriptor and turn it into a style of play, or at least in-game colour.

I like all of these ideas, but the actual effects seem a bit blunt. This is probably an inevitable corollary of the relatively simple Chain of Command system; there aren't all that many things to tweak, and in the end it's a wargame rather than an RPG.

The final section describes an example full-map campaign in some detail, explaining how the author can find inspiration from real-world accounts of events, pick specific types of engagement (something where it makes sense for a single platoon to be fighting in relative isolation), and convert this into maps and numbers usable for game setup. It's clear that even this relatively simple example needs a fair bit of work and rules bodging to get it historically accurate, but this is after all a proper grown-up wargame, not a tournament game where there must be a set answer for every question.

Overall: it's a bit slight at times, but this is a solid framework for wrapping round Chain of Command games and giving them some consequences. It doesn't deal with the problem of runaway victories except in terms of the platoon leader over-stretching himself. (But that is another discussion for another time.)

Campaign Turn Sequence Chart

  1. Attacker chooses action:
  2. advance and fight
  3. if on a main defensive position, consolidate (p. 17; gives up initiative)
  4. strengthen defences (p. 17; gives up initiative)
  5. Defender chooses action:
  6. if attacked, fight or retreat
  7. if handed initative, counter-attack (may choose Attack and Defend rather than set scenario) or strengthen defences
  8. Counter-attacked Attacker may choose to fight or retreat
  9. If a fight is happening, fight it (p. 22).
  10. Resolve withdrawals and routs (p. 23).
  11. Allocate casualties (pp. 18-19).
  12. Resolve post-game events including replacement leaders, PoWs, awards for bravery and reorganisation (pp. 24-26)
  13. Each player may request replacements (pp. 19-20).
  14. Each player may request reinforcements (pp. 19-20).
  15. Each player may choose to Give Ground (p. 17; gains a free strengthen on new position, gives the enemy a free victory; no battle takes place next turn)

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