RogerBW's Blog

On Campaign Systems 07 February 2014

I've been interested for some time in campaign systems, by which I mean ways of linking together individual tactical games to create some sort of larger narrative. Originally I was looking for a true hierarchical system that would let one tease an individual infantry fight out of the decision to invade Russia, and then feed back those fights to find out where the tide turned; some FASA wargames tried this, but on reflection I've given up on it for two reasons. One is that each level of game is likely to appeal to different players, so one would need to organise something on a pretty large scale; the other is that my gaming time is limited, and it might well take several years to resolve even a minor conflict.

At the other end of the complexity scale is the sort of thing I'm looking at now, a lightweight system to take the results of one tactical game and generate an interesting situation for the next one. It should, first of all, solve the chess problem: in a purely tactical game, there's no reason not to sacrifice all of your forces to try to achieve the victory condition, because a withdrawal in good order is no better than getting wiped out; it's still just "a loss". This doesn't lend itself to realistic tactics. In a campaign you have to think about how you'll fight the next battle, which usually means playing more carefully and withdrawing earlier. Especially if the game itself doesn't support that sort of morale-based hesitancy, and BattleTech for example doesn't consider morale at all, the campaign system should encourage players to try to preserve their forces.

A problem with many campaign systems I've tried is momentum. You might start off with two reasonably evenly-matched forces, but once one side has got a few wins under its belt it's got more and better units available, better morale, and so on, so the last few games end up being sure things. That's no fun for the player on the losing side. And yet it's not unrealistic. At the Sharp End tries to handle this by making the later scenarios more challenging for the attacker, but the defender's still likely to be working with the ragged remnants of the force that's been beaten in previous games while the attacker has the benefits of high morale and good support. One could argue that getting those benefits is the point of playing a campaign: the fruits of victory, and so on. And yet….

(In general I refer to this sort of situation, in which everyone knows who's going to win the game but you have to keep playing for ages to get to the actual winning condition, as the Monopoly problem; it's not unique to that game, and certainly not the only problem it has, but I think that's a good example.)

Recent published campaigns for BattleTech have used the Chaos Campaign system, which solves the momentum problem in a different way: only one side uses the same forces throughout the campaign. The other is a changing array of enemy units, which deals with momentum well enough but gives one player no real stake in the outcome; even if he wins, he can't point to a specific element or unit that lasted through the whole fight. On the other hand this makes a great deal of sense when simulating small fights as part of a larger, more fluid struggle: even if Force Red survives its contact with Force Blue, it starts to stretch credibility if Force Blue is always going up against the same foes.

I don't play as often as I'd like to, so my tabletop time is precious. I don't want to spend it on games with an assured outcome. The purpose of a campaign system is to generate interesting engagements. If one side's been beaten, the campaign should end right there, not ask me to chase down stragglers. (For that matter a game at the table should automatically end when the outcome is reasonably certain, rather than having to be played out to the last bullet. I think morale rules are very important for this, and Chain of Command does it pretty well.)

So when I contemplate a campaign system for Tin Soldier, I think that most battles, at least the stand-up fights, will be reasonably balanced in terms of the total amount of force deployed by each side. The side that's winning will have more sorts of unit to choose from, and possibly higher skill levels; the side that's losing should therefore be able to bring on more units. (They may well be low-quality infantry, but that's not unreasonable for a desperate commander throwing anyone he can find into a final defence: the cooks, the clerks, the bottle-washers…) If the defeat has been so comprehensive that there aren't the forces to make an interesting game, that's a campaign victory: congratulations, go and do something else.

I think that cautious play is something to be encouraged at this level too. Indeed, it would be good to end a campaign with a score based not only on objectives but on how many troops one kept alive, because it may be the end of this particular action but it's not (necessarily) yet the end of the war.

What I'm working on at the moment is a set of general-purpose scenarios (patrol, ambush, etc.), to be followed by a set of links between them. Let's say one side has just won an open field battle; what happens next might be an immediate pursuit of the fleeing enemy (both sides might get reinforcements), a pursuit interrupted by a forlorn hope or even a duel of champions (this is intended for the BattleTech universe, after all), a pause for the attacker to repair and resupply, and so on. I suspect that there needs to be some type of outcome matrix for each scenario: given the end state of the game, attacker and defender both decide what they want to do next, and the choices generate a new scenario between them.

This is, of course, horribly complex, and probably largely specific to this particular setting. But I'll give it a try at least, and it may yet be that something more generic can be extracted from it.

Tags: wargaming

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 06:22pm on 07 February 2014

    It's going to be horribly hard to do this. The problem is that with historical hindsight a lot of wars were very bad deals for the people who started them and they really should have known better. Remember John Dallman on the podcast saying that WWII was over and decided the moment Hitler declared war on the US?

    In an abstract and/or fantasy setting it's going to easier to use balance to keep peoples' interest for longer but even so there comes a point where what you should do is sue for peace. If you're not Hitler, you don't want the war to keep going after Stalingrad, really.

    I was saying to someone over the weekend that the difference between the two levels of military thinking is: "Tactics tells you to bomb the jungle with Agent Orange. Strategy tells you never to get involved in a land war in Asia."

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 06:44pm on 07 February 2014

    (Yes, anyone reading this who doesn't know about the podcast should remedy that.)

    I'm keeping things on a fairly small scale here: just one level up from the immediate tactical game, what one might call the operational level that sits between the tactical and the strategic. Trying to simulate an entire conflict at all levels is probably the wargaming equivalent of the fantasy heartbreaker.

    Deciding to make peace is definitely above the pay grade of the people involved at this scale. What I'm primarily after is a way of deciding, mechanistically, "this fight is not going to be fun to play, therefore let us not play it".

    At the Sharp End gives you an option like this in that you can decide to retreat rather than fight, handing your enemy the victory. I want to expand on that idea and cut off the campaign when it's no longer capable of generating enjoyable games. This doesn't necessarily mean that Force Red has laid down its guns and surrendered; but it may well mean that the remaining fights are mopping-up in detail (what the Finns called motti) and not interesting to play out.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 08:31pm on 07 February 2014

    In that case it's certainly do-able with something like the multiple room wargame traditionally used by military colleges. One room for Force Red where they see what they know, one for Force Blue where they see what they know and one for the referees where they see all.

    (As you already know, Professor but I speak in case people clueless about this are listening.)

    It would seem to call for hidden written orders on the campaign scale and computer moderation to resolve them. Or can you resolve campaign levels orders with pen and paper systems?

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:45pm on 07 February 2014

    In the ideal case this won't need a referee at all. (After all, that means an extra player, and finding one player is hard enough.) So I've been looking at some sort of maximum force ratio after which you decide not to bother setting up. It's a bit crude, but….

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