On Rules

I still want to do some kind of 2008 in Review article at some point, but one thing that struck me was that it was bookended by two very promising wargames with quite possibly the worst sets of rules I have ever seen – and believe me, as one who has ranted about game rules before, that’s saying something. So I thought I’d take an opportunity to rant some more and maybe to offer some solutions.

The games in question are The Devil’s Cauldron (MMP) and Pursuit of Glory (GMT). I had every reason to like both.

In fact, maybe I do. I almost can’t tell. Because the #1 reason I threw up my hands in despair at The Devil’s Cauldron was not gameplay, but utter, blinding frustration with the rule book. I could never remember the Assault Sequence, for example, and every time we needed to confirm some small detail we needed to wade through the rules’ endless nattering before finding (hopefully – there is no index) what we were looking for. The insanely verbose and conversational style makes actually using it during a game to look stuff up an infuriating exercise.

Conversely, the Pursuit of Glory rules read more like a rough draft than actual rules. Spread over almost 50 sprawling pages, the rules are constantly re-stating themselves, presenting things out-of-order, clarifying the blindingly obvious, and getting bogged down in minor details. This game is almost certainly not be as complex as it looks, but with 50 pages of meandering and incomprehensible rules, I can virtually guarantee it will never be played around here. Nobody I game with regularly will look at that kind of page count and even bother to try, no matter how much one insists it’s very like the modest-complexity Paths of Glory and the rules volume is due mostly to clarifications and keeping the most obtuse players on ConsimWorld happy. Page count may be a crude metric, but 50 pages = no go unless you’re OCS or ASL. I take that back, even OCS has “only” 38.

Although these were by far the worst, there were plenty of bad rulebooks this year, particularly from repeat offenders GMT and Fantasy Flight. The Unhappy King Charles! rule book makes a moderately complicated game look daunting, Warriors of God uses opaque and non-standard terminology to make a simple game needlessly confusing, and Tide of Iron’s rules turn a light wargame into a major undertaking, with the Desert Fox expansion rules being even worse.

Enough ranting. On this particular occasion I’m here not just to complain, but to offer some suggestions. I’ll admit I’ve never written a rulebook. But I have spent a great deal of time explaining rules to people, and certainly have read more than my share. Some of this stuff seems very basic to me, but apparently it needs to be said.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to keep in mind what we’re trying to accomplish here. What we are trying to do is to build a model of the game in the player’s mind. The player has to have a working model of the game in his or her head in order to weigh the options and make the decisions required to play it. So the goal is to build up these mental systems in a way not unlike you would assemble anything else.

The 100% Rule: When writing rules, one must bear in mind that there is actually a big difference between explaining rules and creating a working rule book. If I explain the game rules to you, I only need to get far enough for you to have a solid enough mental model to begin playing. Things that are initially either not relevant or negligibly relevant can be explained later. As an explainer, I can also rely on the players to ask clarifying questions when their mental models seem to have gaps. But to formally describe a game in a set of rules, 90% is not good enough, you have to have 100%. The same conversational techniques you would use to teach rules in person can fail to fully and concisely convey the complete details of a complex system when read. Sometimes catastrophically, as The Devil’s Cauldron demonstrates. It has an acceptable 90% rulebook if you have access to someone who knows the game 100%. Unfortunately, such a person does not appear to be included in the box.

Short Rules Are Better: It’s a fact of life that our brains’ short-term storage buffers are small, and a rule has to pass through that buffer before it has a chance of being retained long term. Simple, straightforward rules can frequently be made vastly more difficult to retain through over-explanation. Rule 12.5 in Pursuit of Glory is a good example. This is a simple rule: All full strength regular units have to roll a die when activated for attack in certain situations, and if they roll >= the round number, they are reduced. But then when you spend 4 (short) paragraphs clarifying that means that reduced units don’t roll, irregulars don’t roll, that yes, “when activated” really is before combat, so you have to use your reduced combat strength, that rolling > 2 is more likely than rolling > 5, and that there might possibly be cards out there that alter all this, all of a sudden you’ve actually made the transition from page to memory far more difficult than if you had just bolded the word regular and been done with it. Plus you’ve completely broken the reader’s rhythm. The simple version is perfectly clear and concise. If you feel you absolutely must preempt possible misunderstanding of an otherwise perfectly clear rule, put it in a footnote, side-note, or appendix. As a corollary, write your rules for the average reader, not some nut-job on ConsimWorld who is out to willfully misinterpret your rules or question your design decisions.

The Test of Context: I’ve talked about this a little on a recent thread about explaining Race for the Galaxy on BoardGame Geek. This gets back to the whole mental model thing. When you’re trying to help someone build a mental model of the game systems, you want to build the systems in a logical order, such that a player doesn’t have to do a lot of work to hook them up once the explanation is done. In many games, the sequence-of-play order is the way to go. But there are some dramatic examples where explaining things in that order actually makes it significantly more difficult, like Race for the Galaxy or Through the Ages, because understanding things that happen in the first phases requires understanding what’s going on later – but the opposite may not be true.

For wargames, what this translates into is that you have to start with the victory conditions, because that is the overall context. Paths and Pursuit of Glory get this right; the victory conditions are up front. Unhappy King Charles! gets it wrong and puts the victory conditions right at the end, so you struggle through the rulebook with little understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish and then have to retrofit your mental model when you find out the answer. From there, you might argue for explaining rules that are critical to victory before breaking into the sequence of play; for Unhappy King Charles! and Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, for example, one might make an argument to explain political and provincial control second rather than in sequence of play order.

The other thing this argues strongly against is up-front terminology explanations, which have become distressingly common in GMT rulebooks. Pursuit of Glory has two dense pages of terminology up front which are almost totally incomprehensible since you have no context for understanding what they’re going on about. Pursuit of Glory is actually a multiple, severe offender here. We get terrain effects on combat on page 4 before we’ve even gotten to the sequence of play. Detailed unit descriptions are on page 6 and 7 before we have any way of understanding what these unit distinctions actually mean in game terms, so the rules of course have to repeat everything again later, which itself becomes incredibly problematic. There is absolutely no reason to introduce a rule like this before the reader can possibly understand it.

You get or lose players in the first five pages or so, and almost definitely by page 10. If players can get get a running start on what the game is all about – if you get them a solid context to work with – they’ll have hope, even if your game is complicated. If they’re on page 8 and still haven’t got past the component overview, as is the case in Pursuit of Glory, you’re screwed. Put the glossary at the end.

Tell ’em Once: There is an old rule of business presentations: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you’ve told ’em”. Unless you intend your rules to be read by disinterested and bored people who don’t really want to be there, this is terrible advice for rules-writers. If you’re repeating rules (like the Blockade rules, repeated several times in Pursuit of Glory), you’re re-building a part of the mental model you’ve already built. Unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, do it once and cross-reference.

The Once per Game Test: Rules need momentum and continuity. You need to build up an understanding of the core game systems before you deal with flavor rules. Any rules that applies only once per game should not be in the main body. Unhappy King Charles! is an offender here, with a couple pages of one-off rules right smack in the middle of the rulebook, breaking up the coherency the game system explanation. One-offs should be at the end, in their own categorized sections, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.

In the same vein, one of the absolutely critical strengths of these card-driven wargames is that they can put a lot of these sorts of one-off rules – which are great for flavor but hugely problematic in terms of increasing real complexity – in the cards without burdening the player with learning them up front or having to remember them (in fact, for many folks not knowing exactly what is in the decks is a desirable feature of the first few games). One should leverage this. If a card explains its effect(s) perfectly clearly, it doesn’t need a rule. Pursuit of Glory is again a repeat offender here, including (for example) rules 7.4.1, 7.4.2, 17.2.2 & 18.2.2 which, while admittedly short, are still unnecessary.

The Less than Once per Game Test: Any rules that take effect less than once per game (on average), whether they are rules that cover oddball situations that rarely come up or are chrome, should also be removed from the main rules. If they are patching up the rules to cover rare but awkward situations they should be in footnotes or something similar. If it’s a real rule that has an application of less than once per game, you should first consider if you really need it, then put it somewhere where it isn’t going to bother anyone.

Bad Game Systems Make Bad Rules: If you’re having a hard time explaining something, it may be the fault of the game system, not the rules. If, as in Pursuit of Glory’s section 11.2.2, you find yourself apologizing that seriously, this rule is actually really simple and just hard to explain clearly, you have officially entered the swamp. Which Turkish and Bulgarian LCUs can’t do, apparently.

Designer’s and Historical Notes: I love designer’s and historical notes. I don’t love them when they break up the flow of the rules. Too often they just serve to provide historical rationalization for bad rules, and they rarely, if ever, serve to help learn, clarify, or remember things. Put them at the end as a serious piece, like Avalon Hill used to do. Alternatively, do what Columbia does and have a three-column format, two with rules, and one with historical notes, designer’s notes, optional rules, and other interesting tidbits where you can both see them (if you’re interested) without having to delve into the rules, and also delve into the rules without being distracted by them.

An Index: If you have more than 12 pages of rules, have an index. Seriously. It’s not that hard these days, and it has the added bonus that if your index is a mess, your rules are probably a mess too. It’s insane how many complicated games don’t have indices. Like Pursuit of Glory and The Devil’s Cauldron.

Write Rules: While a game may have a goal – to teach some history, to espouse a theory of mobile warfare, to explain why things happened the way they did – once you cross the threshold from light to medium-weight, the game’s rules’ only goal must be to build the player’s mental model. That’s it. The rules are not the place to defend your design decisions, put across your point of view, or explain the history. The rules must be designed to cleanly and clearly explain the game system(s), nothing more. The systems themselves are, after all, supposed to be the vehicle through which you do all that other stuff and should stand on their own. Anything else belongs in footnotes, Designer’s Notes, Developer’s Notes, Historical Notes, More Notes, Appendices, Further Reading, Historical Booklet, Further Notes, or whatever.

As I finish writing this piece, I realize my goal – of setting down some hard and fast rules for writing rules to more complicated games – is obviously bigger than I could hope to tackle. So I ask you to help me out here. What are the worst mistakes you’ve seen rules-writers make, and what would you do to correct them? What are some of the best rules styles you’ve seen? For my part, I think Ted Raicer does good job – his original rules for Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin stand as good models for card-driven wargames of this sort. Even though they’ve become a bit needlessly bloated in recent updates of the living rules, they’re still pretty good. Mark Simonitch and Vance Von Borries also do a good job. While I might sometimes quibble with the follow-through, I think Richard Berg knows how to do this stuff properly. I like Columbia’s format a lot for their higher-end games like EastFront and Rommel in the Desert. On the other hand, GMT’s line of card-driven wargames has a lot of entries with painfully bad rules.


Warriors of God

I think all of Multiman Publishing’s International Game Series games (Fire in the Sky, A Victory Lost, Red Star Rising) would be far more appealing if they could cut several hours off of their playing time (or, in the case of Red Star Rising, if it had some year- or campaign-length scenarios to go with the toys and monsters). All of these are clever, well designed games that just go on for way too long to ever get much, or indeed any, table time. So for me anyway, Warriors of God was as much about answering the question, “is this whole series doomed to excessive play time?”, as it was about finding out if the game itself was any good. Because if it carried on the series’ tradition in this respect, I could walk away from the whole IGS thing.

The short answer is, it isn’t, and I can’t. Warriors of God was pretty fun, and while it still is unquestionably a bit too long for the game that it is, the magnitude of the problem is far less than it has been in previous IGS games. Warriors of God runs about 3-4 hours when 2-3 would be more appropriate, given that it’s chaotic and can become somewhat repetitive. Fire in the Sky ran like 10-12 hours but started getting tedious at around 6. Fire in the Sky’s length problem was a show-stopper. Warriors of God’s is not.

The basic idea of the game is that you play either the French or the English in the various wars in the 12th through 15th centuries. The main attraction is the Hundred Years War, but there is also a Lion in Winter covering the earlier period surrounding Richard the Lionheart. The tools you will use to win are the leaders the two nations have at their disposal, from the bad (a bunch of guys named some variation of John and/or Jean) to the legendary (Henry V, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, to pick a few). Leaders are rated for their rank, which limits how many troops they can command and who will be in charge when leaders fight together; the number of troops they can wield in battle, which limits the number of dice you can roll in combat; and how valorously they can lead them. The last is quite important as an advantage in valor gives a to-hit bonus to the possessing side, and since the basic hit number is a 6 on a 6-sided die, even just a +1 doubles the effectiveness of your troops.

The flow of the game is driven by the arrival and departure of these leaders. Every turn 6 show up (2 French, 2 English, and 2 neutrals, the last of which the players draft), and everyone who is already there checks to see if they croak. Basically, every leader in play rolls a die, and if the die roll plus that leader’s arrival turn is less than the current turn, that leader dies (or retires or whatever). Anyone who is left musters troops and campaigns against the enemy.

Really, that’s about all you need to know about the game. There is some solid period chrome, from rules about longbows to gunners and sieges, but like Britannia, the real flavor of the game is in the flow of these leaders, good and bad. Sometimes you’ve got a great leader like Henry V and you need to make maximum use of him before he dies. Sometimes you’ve got nothing and you just need to hold out until someone competent shows up. This dynamic is fun, albeit fraught with chaos; some games Henry V will show up and promptly die, while some games you may get him for the full 6 turns. Obviously, being able to use the most awesome piece in the game for 6 turns vs. 1 is just a little bit game-altering. The uncertainty is obviously an important element of the game. But those leader death checks are some pretty high-stakes die rolls.

In general, the game doesn’t make you pick up the die unless you’re rolling for something really important. Sieges which decide the fates of armies are resolved on a single die roll, typically a 1:6 or 1:3 roll. The initiative die roll will dictate whether the turn has 3 or 8 impulses, and so how much time you have to utilize your just-received awesome leader. And you can only gain control of provinces at all on a 1:2 or 1:3 die roll.

This last thing actually is really the only thing that sort of bugged me about the game. Controlling provinces is the key both to winning, and to forming some sort of territorial coherency for your kingdom and therefore managing troop mustering and getting some sense of strategy beyond raw opportunism, and the difficulty of gaining control of provinces is kind of odd. You can only roll once per turn, which represents ten years, so it’s possible to send a leader milling around somewhere for 30 or 40 years (assuming he lives) and never actually be able to control the region. For me personally, this was almost a die roll too far. I could live with the huge chaos involved in the leaders, battles, and sieges, because I felt like they added texture and the frustration they served up was at least in service of something historical and flavorful. But having to make further high-stakes die rolls every turn just to take control of provinces – even when the enemy was nowhere within a hundred miles – seemed gratuitous.

But the bottom line on Warriors of God was that I enjoyed it. I wish it were shorter; it’s a very chaotic game, and although I think it’s chaotic in a fun way, the buffeting winds of fate do tend to wear one out after a couple hours, and so I can’t exactly see it getting a ton of table time. But it is flavorful, and fun, and unusual, and has that “epic sweep” flavor of Britannia as players enter and exit the stage. In sharp contrast to the route taken by most euros, a lot of the best wargames are about managing chaos, about looking for opportunities in apparently unpromising situations or rolling with the punches, and I felt Warriors of God managed to find a generally good spot there, giving you an unpredictable situation to deal with as well as the tools to try to cope with it. There aren’t a lot of these low-end wargames that I like very much, and while it’s true Warriors of God didn’t exactly blow me away, I did enjoy it, and feel like it fills a niche in my collection for the time anyway.

Appendix I:

As a historical game, I feel Warriors of God does suffer a bit from being a “complete information” game, sort of like Fire in the Sky did. Everyone can see everything and know exactly how good the leaders are and how effective longbows are going to be, so some historical events just can’t happen. Being fully aware of the power of the longbow, the effectiveness of Henry V, and the ineffectiveness of their own leaders, the French are just going to run away at Agincourt, which seems rather wrong. Obviously, all wargames suffer from this to some degree. But Warriors of God, in which leaders play such a crucial role, could benefit from uncertainty or asymmetrical information as to leaders’ capabilities. The game as it is is still a good game, but the way leaders come and go could be seen to have the dual properties of being both hugely chaotic (because of the death rolls) as well as highly scripted (because we all know when Henry V is going to get here and exactly how good he’s going to be) in a way that is almost reinforcing, when usually a game introduces some scripting to reduce the chaos, or vice versa.

Appendix II:

Generally I cut MMP some slack on their rules-writing given that compared to their primary competition, GMT, they tend to have far less errata and more coherent rules in general. But recently I’ve been frustrated and annoyed with a number of their rules sets. Warriors of God isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either for such a simple game (the use of the term “contested area” is extremely non-standard and confusing, the rules for mustering units are confusing, the rules for placing leaders are easy to misplay, and there is already errata), and after struggling with the extremely problematic rules for Fire in the Sky and The Devil’s Cauldron recently, I think maybe it’s time for MMP to re-think their rules-writing process for their non-ASL games.

The Devil’s Cauldron

I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with “monster games”. One of my most enjoyable wargame experiences was playing a campaign game of Red Barricades, a monster game by any measure. I am a big fan of MMP’s Operational Combat Series. Then again, monster games are fraught with difficulties almost too numerous to list, not the least of which is the impossibility of seriously testing them for game balance, since they tend to run into the tens of hours to play, if not hundreds. For monster games to work for me, they also have to work as non-monsters – a great example is Avalon Hill’s and MMP’s Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, which is a tremendous game whether you are playing shorter scenarios or longer games, and even in that case the long games are not insane. I once played a full campaign of Grant Takes Command in a day.

So I spent a lot of time flip-flopping on whether to even try to mess with The Devil’s Cauldron. It’s billed as a playable monster, but everyone says that. It’s by a long-time gamer but first-time designer Adam Starkweather, and my general feeling is it might be a good idea to cut your teeth on something smaller your first time out. On the other hand, the whole Market-Garden campaign is an endlessly fascinating one, the grand tactical scale (units being companies) is intriguing, and the command system sounded interesting. A bunch of interesting-looking smaller scenarios were provided. So ultimately I cracked and have played a few times now, enough to pique my interest. Not quite enough, yet, to determine if it was money well spent.

The Devil’s Cauldron is a chit-pull/activation-point based system; units in the game sit around until they are activated either by the draw of a chit, or through the spending of command points. Those units tend to be companies, which form up into either brigades, regiments, or Kampfgruppes, which are then parts of divisions. For example, the 82nd Airborne is made up of four Parachute Infantry Regiments, each of which has about twelve companies laid out as three battalions of four companies – but the battalion level of organization has no representation in the game. These four front-line regiments are supported by an artillery regiment and a “regiment” of division-level support assets, giving the 82nd six regiments in total. Each regiment has a chit, which can be added to an opaque cup at the beginning of a turn by spending the parent division’s “dispatch” points, which accumulate slowly and somewhat randomly over time. When that chit is drawn, all the units of that regiment can perform actions – moving and attacking being popular options. Alternatively, the division also accumulates “command” points, which can be spent generically on a variety of things: allowing units to perform an additional action when activated normally, allowing units to activate when a “direct command” or divisional activation chit is drawn, and to automatically pass morale checks in some, but not all, circumstances (for things like forced marches or close combat assaults).

So, you’ve got two pools of activations points: dispatch points, which allow formations of units to activate as a group; and command points which allow individual units to perform a variety of activities including doing more when activated by a regimental activation, or doing anything when a higher-level activation chit (divisional or direct) is drawn.

Activation points are, from a game perspective, fundamentally a great concept. They introduce resource management, and force the player to make tough choices if need and scarcity are well-balanced. But The Devil’s Cauldron is a sprawling wargame, not a concise euro, and so for me, the activation points have to make some sense in context and be at least somewhat representational and not just gratuitous micromanagement. We can tolerate a high degree of abstractness in euros because we can work through all the options pretty easily; but similarly, we don’t just want, we need things to be more representational in big, complicated wargames because we can’t play that way, we need to rely to some degree on our intuition based on knowledge of the subject matter or prior experience. For example, OCS’s supply points are a good representation of the large supply requirements of serious offensive operations, so for me they work – we know armored divisions need fuel and artillery needs vast quantities of ammunition to be effective, and that’s what OCS asks us to manage. On the other hand, the activation points you get through card play in Paths of Glory really are not representative of anything other than the designer’s desire to have you make some tough choices. Paths of Glory works because the rest of the game is so good, and not hugely complex, but it would be nice if the activation points made some sense and it would be easier for players to figure out the techniques if they actually modeled something historical.

So with that long-winded intro out of the way, where does The Devil’s Cauldron stand on this point?

The activation chits model the common theme of the difficulties in cross-command coordination, whether it be between divisions or regiments, and the vagaries of the decision cycle (you may want to attack, but the enemy’s chit gets picked first, giving him some initiative). This is a tried and true technique which works pretty well for the most part (one might quibble somewhat with the difficulties of getting divisional assets like anti-tank guns to coordinate with lower-echelon units that they are assigned to and deployed with, but it’s tough to get too exercised about it).

The dispatch points model command and communication difficulties, and the time required to put together plans. If you want Tucker and his 504th PIR to get his butt in gear and take Nijmegan bridge, you’ll need to get on the phone, give him some specific instructions, spend some dispatch points, and get his activation chit in the cup so his units can move.

Well, sort of. This is where things start to get a little hazy. You actually have several ways to activate Tucker’s units. By spending the dispatch points, you get his chit and can activate all his units when it’s drawn, for free and without constraint; you can additionally then spend command points to activate those units a second time, albeit not for the same task (so they can move adjacent to some Panzergrenediers for free, then you could spend a command point to have them fire or assault; but if they started adjacent, they can’t fire twice, although they could fire then assault).

However, each division also has a DivAct chit, which gets put in the cup every turn for free, without having to spend dispatch points. This chit allows units to activate for free if they are not engaged with the enemy and not doing combat activities, or you can spend command points to activate them without those restrictions. So, you could just wait for the 82nd’s divisional chit to get pulled, then you can spend command points to activate any of the 82nd’s units directly (including the 504th PIR).

There is also a direct activation chit that gets added each turn, also for free, which allows you to activate anyone you want, but you must spend command points.

So when looking at what these points represent about a division, I sort of think of the command points as the level of competence and initiative in the lower levels of leadership in the division. They’ll allow you to execute your regimental-level activation chit more aggressively, or undertake actions even if the higher-ups don’t have a plan (i.e., haven’t spent dispatch points to put their chit in the cup). Dispatch points represent the quality of divisional leadership and staff work, how quickly the divisional leadership can plan and get those plans implemented.

For most of the game, this model seems to work and make sense. Most units in the game, like the 1st Airborne, the Guards Armored, etc., will accumulate a moderate number of dispatch points in a day (5-ish) and enough command points to do a few things, but not so many as to spend them frivolously. The lousy German units, like the Korps Feldt, get lousy command and lousy dispatch points, and those units feel appropriately sluggish and unresponsive.

The anomaly (on the Allied side) is the 82nd Airborne. They receive colossal numbers of command points – accumulating them at the fastest rate in the game – but a miserly quotient of dispatch points, ranking amongst the worst units in the game in this respect, as bad as some of the third-echelon German units they face. This is, on the face of it, odd. I’m not aware of any information suggesting General Gavin or his staff was out to lunch on this one, certainly not moreso than Urqhart of the 1st Airborne, who was caught behind enemy lines early in the operation (he still gets more dispatch points than Gavin).

At any rate, what this means is that the 82nd is run almost entirely off of their gargantuan pile of command points. They only get a little over two dispatch points in an entire day (on average), which means they put two regimental chits in the cup over a seven-turn period (there are some subtleties here that I’m glossing over). On the other hand, they get about ten command points each and every turn, almost enough to power an entire regiment.

This creates some issues, and makes the 82nd an extremely awkward and time-consuming formation to run. Unlike other units, which rely on dispatch points to make command-level decisions and then command points to supercharge those actions or take spur-of-the-moment stop-gap actions, every time the 82nd’s divisional chit comes out of the cup, that commander has to sit down and micromanage the entire division. A division can’t accumulate more than 19 command points, so the 10-ish that the 82nd gets every turn have to spent or they may be needlessly wasted. The decisions are not the command-level decisions of preparing or attacking, or picking objectives; it’s more like figuring out how many command points you have to spend, looking at everyone in the division who is proximate to the enemy and figuring out whether they are worthy of having a command point spent on their behalf. It makes the 82nd very potent. If there is something that needs to be done, or something that comes up unexpectedly, they can react very quickly. They can run rings around their opponents in the Korps Feldt. The huge pile of command points more than makes up for their shortage of dispatch points. But it also makes running them an exercise in micromanagement that really does not seem thematic or appropriate.

I like the theory of dispatch vs. command points, and it seems like more standard divisions like the Guards Armored or 1st Airborne, with their less-generous command points but more reasonable dispatch points, would be more interesting to play. I have to admit that in the games I’ve played so far, the whole command point system has skirted dangerously close to feeling more like micromanaging abstract resource points than like playing a tactical combat game. But on balance, I’ve enjoyed the game the few times I’ve played short scenarios, even though the situations aren’t great and I wouldn’t necessarily play them again (Little Omaha has a lot for the Allies to do, but the defending Germans mainly get to hunker down and learn the Opportunity Fire rules, while in The Empire Strikes Back the hopelessly out-classed German attackers mostly hope not to blow a few amazingly crucial die rolls while praying to get lucky and roll a few dispatch points). So far, while the game has been fun, my hopes for decent small scenarios have been unfulfilled, but at least they do play quickly, and I’m looking forward to trying some of the games in the 1st Airborne sector, where both sides have quality units and where, I’m hopeful, the situation will find a better balance.

I can’t leave the topic of The Devil’s Cauldron without commenting briefly on its system for opportunity fire, which is unusual. I’m not sure how it got from point A to point B, but it’s identical to the system used in another game I play. The general idea is that you don’t get opportunity fire when somebody moves into your zone of fire, but rather when somebody performs a movement action in, or leaves, your fire zone. So an enemy company can move adjacent to you and fire at you for a couple hours, and this never triggers opportunity fire. You only get the shot when that enemy unit later leaves, or moves from one adjacent hex to another, or tries to entrench or something similar while adjacent to you. This is, strangely, exactly the system used by Dungeons & Dragons and the d20 roleplaying system, but not by any other hex-and-counter wargame I am aware of. In D&D, they’re called Attacks of Opportunity, and they drive people absolutely nuts because of the anti-intuitive rules and some of the strange implications. They work better here.

Shifting Sands

I’ve been putting off doing this write-up, because I feel like my track record on these card games is sketchy. I’ll play one of them a couple or a few times, the game will be fun, I’ll do the write-up, and then the game promptly crashes and burns the very next time I play it. Such was the case for The Napoleonic Wars, Triumph of Chaos, and Sword of Rome, all of which hit the wall pretty hard (some harder than others, though). I’d probably be tougher on Twilight Struggle if I wrote my review today. Here I Stand, a game I do still like, nonetheless couldn’t hold the enthusiasm generated by the first few games and it overall must be judged to have some significant issues.

So, I was not sure what to do with Shifting Sands. But, having now played three times, I’ve cracked and you get this.

Shifting Sands is a direct descendant of GMT and Ted Raicer’s classic games Barbarossa to Berlin and Paths of Glory. The core game system is virtually identical. On your turn, you play a card from your hand, and choose between operations (movement and combat), replacements, strategic moves, or the military or political event. If you choose operations, you spend the number the card gives you to activate units around the board. While your infantry holds the line and provides mass, armor units form the critical core of your army, and drive a lot of the tactical interest by having the ability to shift the weight of an attack easily and rapidly, as well as to add the possibility of overrunning defending units.

From a historical perspective, the war in the Western Desert was not so much blitzkrieg in miniature as it was a series of set-piece battles interspersed with cavalry-style raids and flanking maneuvers, and the tactics of Shifting Sands capture elements of this. Because of the maneuverability of armored units, the overrun results, and possible armor attack bonuses, the offensive is very powerful when things are taking place in the open with insecure flanks. But once you hit a choke-point where flanks can be secured, or once the defender gets some terrain to take advantage of, things turn into a slugging match.

But, the tactical game – while certainly interesting – is not really Shifting Sands’ major focus. As it was for Paths of Glory, Shifting Sands is about resource management. Limited cards and limited action points have to be split wisely between operations, replacements, and events. And operations have to be prioritized wisely amongst the game’s several theaters.

Each player gets their own deck of cards, divided into three piles. The 1940 deck, like Paths of Glory’s Mobilization deck, is small, and the players will go through it in a couple turns. 1941 gets a bit thicker, and then 1942 adds quite a few cards. The thing that makes Shifting Sands feel different, though, is the rapidly-escalating hand sizes. Your hand starts with the Paths of Glory-standard 7 cards, but grows to 10 cards by the end (although it can be temporarily suppressed by Malta-related activities). These large hand sizes make a big difference: the most noticeable is the enhancement in the value of combat cards, since playing them will vary rarely cost you an activation as they often do in Paths of Glory (playing a card’s event to influence combat means that card can’t be used in one of your 6 impulses to actually do stuff. So if there’s a card you need to save for next turn for an important event, and a card you play as a combat card, with a 7 card hand that leaves you one short for your actual impulses). This, combined with combat cards that seem on average somewhat more powerful than the ones in Paths of Glory or Barbarossa to Berlin, is a very nice feature that makes combat a lot more uncertain and interesting, and the availability of combat cards can affect your planning in a way that the much more incidental cards in Barbarossa to Berlin usually don’t.

Apart from the Western Desert, Shifting Sands also features two peripheral theaters, the Near East and East Africa. These are separate gameplay areas in which the Axis ultimately have little to no hope of accomplishing anything constructive, but which can be a drain on British resources. Juggling them ultimately feels like juggling the fronts in Paths of Glory – how can the Serbians be finished off most efficiently? – but the advantage Shifting Sands has is that these resource management tradeoffs make some actual thematic sense. In Paths of Glory, Germany is slowing down Schlieffen’s right wing in order to allow Austria-Hungary to spend operations to battle Serbia, which makes absolutely no sense. In Shifting Sands, having the British choose between spending resources in East Africa or the Western Desert is at least not intuitively jarring.

The other thing is that the game contains many powerful and important event cards, and has a number of sequencing issues – the biggest being a whole series of cards revolving around the reinforcement, siege and possible Axis seizure of Malta. The larger hand sizes makes the management and cycling of cards and events more manageable (compare to the incredibly unwieldy and accident-prone Russian Capitulation Sequence in Paths of Glory).

As for my impressions? Shifting Sands initially get about the same reception as Michael Rinella’s previous game, Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden. I liked both games right away. But on the other hand, both games are so similar in feel to their predecessors (Paths of Glory and Breakout: Normandy), that they didn’t get an initial “wow” the way the originals did when I first played them. But as I came to grips with the new games, I realized that the situations and feel and details are quite different, and interesting in their own right. I really like that both of his games have not just introduced added complexity and playing time, as is unfortunately traditional with spinoff games, but have been able to cleanly port the underlying system to new situations while arguably reducing the complexity and slimming down the playing time. Breakout: Normandy is a 6-hour game, which is just a bit uncomfortable, while Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin are both 10+ hours. On the other hand, Monty’s Gamble is a great and very compact and comfortable 3 to 4 hour game, and Shifting Sands can be finished in 5. Monty’s Gamble’s length is perfect; Shifting Sands is probably a touch long – like in Barbarossa to Berlin, the endgame of mopping up the outnumbered, outgunned, and outclassed Axis is not the most compelling gaming experience ever devised – but on the scale of these things Shifting Sands is a dense game with lots of activity and I have no complaints. Unlike Here I Stand, which can feature significant periods of minimal activity and accomplishment, things are always happening in Shifting Sands.

I can no longer seriously talk about any of these games as “simulations”, but from what I’ll call a “thematic” standpoint, Shifting Sands does pretty well, better I think than many others in this category. The core card mechanism it uses was brilliant when it was originally perfected in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage because it both introduced gameplay tension (having to balance military and political actions) and successfully conveyed a sense of the fog of war of the period. Later games have successfully used cards to achieve game tension, but in my opinion they haven’t always modeled or evoked anything in particular thematically. Paths of Glory was a notable offender in this regard. Why am I trading off Russian vs. French activity? Weren’t these two different nations, with two totally separate supply and command chains? Sure, coordination of offensives between the two nations was hard, but the game model is not coordination problems; the model is that there was a fixed amount of military activity that has to be divvied up amongst the French, British, and Russians, which was clearly just not how things worked. Similarly, presumably the drafting and training areas of the military-industrial complex were going to churn out soldiers regardless of whether or not higher-ups took a break to play a card as Replacement Points instead of happening to notice that someone seems to have sunk the Lusitania. The real limit on replacements was the available manpower pool, from everything I’ve read, something which Paths of Glory pays no attention to.

For me anyway, Shifting Sands is on sounder thematic footing, even though it uses the same system. The antagonists are each drawing from one resource pool, so the decisions about the Western Desert vs. East Africa vs. the Near East make more sense (at least until right at the very end, with the Torch landings, which has the Allies starting to make the same strange trade-offs – who will be active today, the Americans or British? – that you make in Paths of Glory). Supplies in the desert were notoriously variable, so the randomness of the cards feels more plausible. Even the replacement point system, while not great, can be rationalized much more easily here.

On the other hand, any time you repurpose an existing game system to the degree that is the case here, there is bound to be a limit on how much you can do thematically. For example, I think Rommel in the Desert does more with less – Rommel really seems to capture a fundamental tactical and operational feel for the desert campaign, while Shifting Sands takes more of a “storybook” approach, similar (obviously) to that of Paths of Glory: the story of the campaign is told through the event cards, and the players follow along. In Rommel in the Desert, players are making fundamentally authentic-feeling decisions; in Shifting Sands, the campaigns unfold before you. That makes it sound, bad, I know, which doesn’t seem right; but for me personally, I prefer a game which can grasp a couple things fundamentally rather than doing a lot of things superficially. Thus, I think I find Rommel in the Desert the more convincing game, all the more so for having good scenarios playable in a couple of hours. But, by the same token, Shifting Sands does capture the sweep of the entire theatre while Rommel focusses solely on the Western Desert.

Does Shifting Sands succeed as a game? On that count, for me the answer is much more clear – I definitely enjoyed it all three times I played. The game isn’t completely clean; there is some complexity to the interrelated nature of a bunch of the events in the deck that it’ll be difficult to really understand until you’ve played a couple of times, and that complexity is probably a little overdone. The game is probably a touch too long, and the graphic designers over at MMP could have done significantly better in conveying information in the physical design. But these are my only complaints, and they are minor. The game plays more cleanly and with fewer special cases than either predecessor (Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin), it plays in reasonable time, presents the players with lots of interesting decisions, does it constantly with little slack time, maintains its interest almost right to the end, and appears to have well-designed and interesting cards and decks which tell the story of the desert campaign. I look forward to playing it more.

Gavin Take

My friend Milton is thinking about getting back into ASL after a 15-or-so-year absence. I guess TCS isn’t cutting it for him.

ASL, as you might expect for a game with some 56 pages of small-type rules … in Chapter A … has some positives and negatives. Some positives include:

  • You learned to play the game back in 1984, so all you have to pay is the admittedly non-trivial maintanance costs (this might not apply to you if you aren’t me);
  • You can play a fun, interesting, and challenging game in 2-3 hours;
  • You can also play fun, interesting, and immersive games that take a weekend or more, if that’s more to your taste;
  • You get to joke about how your hobby is more complex than many, if not most, people’s day jobs;
  • No scenario ever plays the same way twice – like they say about baseball, every time you play you’ll probably see somthing you’ve never seen before;
  • And even if it did, there are now so many scenarios of so many types (even just the ASL-branded scenarios must be well over 500) that you could play quite a long time before repeating one;
  • Or, such is the depth of the system, you could play a half-dozen of the better scenarios for a year and not need more;
  • While this is almost certainly the most rules-heavy game ever made, you also get the entire order of battle for virtually every significant (and insignificant) nation that participated in the war. Sure, we’re still anxiously awaiting the Romanian vehicles (well, maybe not actually anxiously), but this is a game with Dutch motorcycle-mounted 20mm cannons, halftracks sporting dual side-mounted flamethrowers, huge multi-turreted Russian tanks, and about 42 different models of Sherman tank;
  • In an age in which gamers have been dominated by collectors and nobody can agree on which wargame to play, ASL at least is somthing you can always find people for. And contrary to reaonsable intuition, a lot of comparatively normal people play ASL. If you go to cons, “bad opponent” experiences are an unfortunate fact of life in wargames, but I have experienced them much less in ASL. Admittedly this was some 10 years ago when I was an ASLOK regular.

Then there are the downsides:

  • You forfeit your right to make fun of people who play World in Flames.
  • It’s easy to talk about these rules as being really not so bad in the abstract, but let’s face it – it’s not a pretty situation. Personal tax law is simpler and less capricious, and ASL might even be more complicated than doing accounting for a mid-sized corporation. If ASL were designed today, nobody in their right mind would put in some of the junk that’s in there. While I feel that most smart people, if they put their mind to it, can learn and enjoy Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage or Rommel in the Desert, I hesitate to recommend ASL to anyone. If you want to play this game, you’ll know it and won’t need me to tell you.
  • As a corollary to the above, I think an unhealthy percentage of the skill involved in playing ASL is in simply knowing the rules. Is this really what you got into gaming for? Every time you play, you’re likely to discover a rule you’ve never seen before, or at least can’t remember ever seeing before.
  • You know, very few people are really all that good at ASL, and it can sometimes feel like a cooperative game, you and me against the rules. I point out you should be using a firelane here because you’ve forgotten, you point out that Surrender is NA because my Partisans are Fanatic, or explain what the hell “HD MG FP OK” means on the back of that tank. The options open to the unscrupulous are left as an exercise to the reader. But when did you last run in to a gamer that was a bit too competitive?
  • Your eurogaming friends will think, with some justification, that you’re insane.

I was seriously into ASL from when it came out in the early 80s up through the mid-90s. I faded out when I moved to California where the demographic is younger, there are more gamers, and I got seriously into eurogames and the Middle-Earth CCG. Then when I started wandering back into wargames again, it was with games that had benefitted from the maturing process of the 90s, stuff like Hannibal and Roads to Gettysburg. But for those 10-15 years, ASL provided me with immense enjoyment and diversity of gaming experience. I think ultimately perhaps the real reason I lost interest was because I got tired of teaching people to play. If you’ve been seriously playing a game this involved for a decade, it’s going to take even a smart new player a while to get to the point of providing you with entertaining competition (both in terms of skill, and in terms of simply being able to play that amphibious assault scenario with fighter-bombers, napalm, and cave complexes you’ve been eyeing – Red Beach One, for those of you “in the know”). For some 5 years I was playing almost exclusively with new players who faded out before they got to that point. It makes a big investment even bigger.

I’ve flirted with getting back into ASL since then, and have played occasionally since I’ve been out here and even kept up with purchasing all the Avalon Hill/MMP releases. There are plenty of experienced players around, and my knowledge has certainly regressed at this point. But, on balance, I like too many other games and have zero desire to turn this into Chris’ ASL blog. I am too attached to other games, and ASL is an all-consuming enterprise.

But, Milton is seriously considering getting back into it, so we played – me for the first time in a year or so, and Milton for the first time in about 15. The scenario was Gavin Take, a classic 1-board, low-density scenario that we finished in just 3 hours, rust and all. I beat him partly because I knew the rules better, but also because I got the most out of my smoke capacity. Sorry, SMOKE capacity (in ASL, smoke and SMOKE are different. Seriously). In the old days, it was common knowledge that the difference between being OK and being good at ASL was knowing how to use smoke, but I always joked that the real difference was just that good players actually suceeded in getting the smoke rolls when they needed it.

I enjoyed the game, it did remind me what I liked about ASL. It’s challenging, it’s controlled chaos and exciting. While much of it is not very historical, it does have that sense of battle, that feeling of everything being just on the verge of being out of control.

But I’m certainly not selling the rest of the games in my collection yet. Then again, I’m not selling off my ASL either.