Category Archives: Gameplay

Introducing a New Generation to Wargames

My childhood friend, Carl Hoffman, introduced me to Avalon Hill wargames. Carl is now a history teacher.

It was my good friend, Carl Hoffman, who lived across the street when I was about 10, who introduced me to Avalon Hill (AH) wargames. The AH wargames of the 1960s were perfectly suited to spark a kid’s imagination. The rules were easy to understand (four pages, big type, with illustrations explaining movement and combat), the Combat Results Table (CRT) was straightforward (and taught us to calculate ratios, too), and we could refight Gettysburg or Waterloo on a rainy afternoon. We learned history (Carl became a history teacher) and problem solving (I became a computer scientist). I’m sure many of us had similar experiences forty or fifty years ago.

For a long time I’ve felt that there is a need for similar ‘introductory wargames’ to engage the next generation of grognards and wargamers. While the hardcore aficionados want more complex and detailed games I’ve also understood that we needed simple, introductory games, to entice a new generation.  From the beginning, I have always had a simpler wargame embedded inside of General Staff. Specifically, if we remove all the layers of historical simulation, what remains is a simple introductory wargame.

The Layers of Historical Simulation in General Staff

Each layer of historical simulation can be turned on or off when playing a General Staff scenario. The more options you add, the more historically accurate the simulation becomes. The options are:

  1. Unit strength
    1. Unit strength is a value from 1 – 4 with units being reduced in steps.
    2. Unit strength is the actual historic number of troops and every individual casualty is tracked.
  2. Combat resolution
    1. Simple Combat Resolution Table like the old AH CRT.
    2. Complex Combat Resolution Equation taking into effect morale, experience, leadership, terrain, and elevation.
  3. Moving units
    1. Units are moved directly by the player.
    2. Orders to move units are issued down a chain of command from the top HQ to the subordinate HQ via couriers and the rapidity with which the orders are executed depends on the Leadership Value of the subordinate HQ and subordinate units.
  4. Fog of War (FoW)
    1. No Fog of War. The entire map is visible and all units (friend and foe) are displayed on it.
    2. Partial FoW. The entire map is displayed and the sum of what all friendly units can see is displayed.
    3. Complete FoW. You see only what the commander can see from his HQ and nothing else. All unit positions not directly observable are updated via couriers and are frequently no longer accurate by the time the courier arrives.

So, at it’s most complex (let’s call this a Historical Accuracy level of 100%) this is what the player commanding the Army of the Potomac (Blue) would see (what General George McClellan could actually see through his telescope on the lawn of the Pry House on the morning of September 17, 1862):

Antietam from the perspective of General George B. McClellan at the Pry House on the east bank of the Antietam Creek. This is complete Fog of War and the highest level of historical accuracy. Screen shot. Click to enlarge.

And, interestingly, this view of what McClellan could see is confirmed in The U. S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam and The Maryland Campaign of 1862 edited by Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson.”General McClellan and his headquarters staff observed the battle from the lawn of the Pry House… Through a telescope mounted on stakes he enjoyed a panorama view of the fighting… He could see Richardson’s division break through the Confederate position at the Bloody Lane. He could not, however, follow the movements of the First and the Twelfth Corps once they disappeared into the East Woods, which masked the fight for the Cornfield, nor did he witness the attempts to seize Burnside’s bridge to the south because  the view from the Pry House was blocked by trees and high ground.” – p. 119.

So, the above is the 100% historically accurate view of the battle of Antietam from McClellan’s Headquarters. This is the ‘introductory’ view:

Antietam in ‘Introductory’ mode. Note that unit strengths are represented by one to four icons. Also note the lack of HQs. Screen shot. Click to enlarge.

I first saw the concept of ‘unit steps’ in Jim Dunnigan’s Avalon Hill classic, 1914 and I’m shamelessly using it here. I very much like the simplicity of this system: as units take casualties, they are reduced, in steps, from four icons, to three, to two, etc. I also very much like the idea that this is not an abstraction of the battle of Antietam (or Little Bighorn, or Quate Bras, etc.) but the actual units in their actual locations. This fulfills my requirements for an introductory wargame: historic, teaches tactics and problem solving, easy to play, simple rules, quick to learn and quick to play (I would think a game could easily be played in less than an hour).

Here are some more General Staff scenarios in ‘introductory mode’:

1st Bull Run, 11:30 hours, ‘introductory’ mode. Screen shot. Click to enlarge.

Little Bighorn in ‘introductory’ mode. Screen capture. Click to enlarge.

Quatre Bras in ‘introductory’ mode. Screen capture. Click to enlarge.

I could use your help! Announcing a ‘name the mode’ contest!

From ‘The American Kriegsspiel. Clicking on this image will take you to the Grogheads.com article on William Livermore’s American Kriegsspiel.

I originally called ‘introductory’ mode, ‘Kriegsspiel’ mode because I was reminded of the maps and blocks that Kriegsspiel uses. However, I pretty quickly received some emails from the Kriegsspiel community complaining – and rightfully so – that Kriegsspiel isn’t an introductory game. Absolutely! And if you’ve ever taken a look at the original rule books and tables you would agree, too.

So, here’s my problem (and how YOU can help): I need a new phrase to replace ‘Kriegsspiel mode’. I’ve been using ‘Introductory mode’ but I just don’t like it. I really need a new name for this version. I’m open to any suggestions. How about a completely made up word? ‘Stratego’ would be great if it hadn’t already been used. So, I’m announcing a contest to ‘name this mode’. The winner will receive 2 General Staff coffee mugs. Please email me (Ezra@RiverviewAI.com) with you suggestions. Thank you for your help!

How Will You Play General Staff?

Every wargame that I’ve designed allows the user to adjust important variables such as leadership and morale and how they affect combat. Usually included is the ability to design your own armies, maps and scenarios as well. However, with the General Staff Wargaming System we’ve added a new feature: the ability to control the realism level before playing a scenario.

The General Staff Wargame has two basic levels of play:

Simulation mode uses HQ units and a chain of command that passes orders down from the General HQ to the sub-commander to the individual unit. How fast the unit responds to the orders are affected by the distance that the courier must travel and the Leadership Value of the HQs.  Simulation mode also employs a more detailed combat resolution model and tracks the actual number of troops in every unit.

An example of Simulation Mode: the path (red line) and time (16 minutes) it will take for a courier to travel from JEB Stuart’s HQ to Munford’s cavalry with orders. Click to enlarge.

Kriegsspiel mode does not have HQ units and friendly units are moved directly and immediately (no transmission of orders via couriers). The combat resolution model is simpler and units have a value of 1-4 displayed by the number of unit icons on the map.

Antietam in Kriegsspiel mode. Notice that there are no HQ units (so no couriers to deliver orders) and units are represented by 1-4 icons. Units in column have a ‘tail’ that indicates the unit strength. Click to enlarge.

In addition to the two game modes (Simulation and Kriegsspiel) there are three Scenario Options:

Order of Battle (OOB) displayed / not displayed. Enemy units with known positions appear dark; enemy units ‘on the map’ but with unknown locations appear grayed out. This, of course, gives the user complete knowledge of the enemy’s OOB and, more importantly, knows when units from certain formations are not directly observable.

A mock up of how the Order of Battle option will appear (note this image was created from screen captures of the Scenario Editor and the Sand Box). Click to enlarge

Only friendly units directly observed by the General HQ are displayed. All other friendly units fade at their last known location. Couriers bring in unit location updates, but they are outdated by the time they arrive.

Only enemy units directly observed by the General HQ are displayed. All other enemy units fade at their last known location. Couriers bring in unit location updates, but they are outdated by the time they arrive.

If both of these above options are selected (only friendly and enemy units that are directly observable by your commanding General HQ) you will be simulating the Fog of War that field commanders of the age of gunpowder experienced.

What General George B. McClellan could actually see at Antietam. Screen shot (General Staff Sand Box). Click to enlarge.

We would like to hear from you and get your opinion on what realism features you will use in General Staff:

“What Ifs” at Little Bighorn

I‘m used to learning a lot when researching a battle but nothing prepared me for the ‘what ifs’ of Little Bighorn. My doctorate is in computer science but I have been an American Civil War buff since I was about five years old. I’m very familiar with brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s achievements during the Appomattox campaign where he commanded a division that smashed Pickett’s right flank at Five Forks. I knew that after the war Custer returned to his previous  rank in the U. S. Army of Lt. Colonel, that he fell under a cloud with U. S. Grant, was stripped of his command, and had to beg for it back from President Grant, himself, at the White House.

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer taken May 1865. Credit: Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.  Click to enlarge.

And, of course, I knew of the debacle at the Little Bighorn.

After I wrote UMS, the first computer wargame construction system, users began to send me Little Bighorn scenarios that included Gatling guns. I assumed that these were science fiction ‘what if’ scenarios. such as a story I read back in the ’60s about what if Civil War units had automatic weapons from the future. But, recently, while reading Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer I learned that General Alfred Terry, Custer’s superior and the commander of the expedition, had indeed offered Custer not just three Gatling Guns (manned by troops from the 20th Infantry 1)The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
https://www.historynet.com/guns-custer-left-behind-burden.htm
) but four extra troops from the 2nd U. S. Cavalry.  Custer turned down Terry’s offer of reinforcements and more firepower with these infamous words:

“The Seventh can handle anything it meets.” – Custer to Terry

Photo taken by F. Jay Haynes of one of the Gatling guns that were available to the 7th Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

Screen capture of the Order of Battle of the 7th US Cavalry with the addition of 3 Gatling guns and 4 companies of the 2nd US Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

As for the battle of Little Bighorn, itself, I didn’t know much more than the broad outline that Custer and his command were killed to the last man by an overwhelming number of Native American warriors (this, of course, wasn’t correct as members of Reno’s and Benteen’s columns survived). Custer, himself, was the text book image of hubris and became the butt of late night comedians and humorous pop songs. But the reality turned out to be much more complex and nuanced.

Custer had a reputation of being dashing, headstrong, and gallant; the iconic description of a cavalry commander. The traditional narrative of the disastrous battle of Little Bighorn is that Custer impulsively attacked a vastly superior enemy force; possibly propelled by a belief that Native American warriors were no match for organized cavalry armed with 45-70 trap door carbines. Indeed, Napoleon’s maxim was that, “twenty or more European soldiers armed with the best weapons could take on fifty or even a hundred natives, because of European discipline, training and fire control.” 2)Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose To make matters worse, Custer had pushed the 7th mercilessly and by the time they arrived at the battlefield both men and horses were exhausted.

Custer’s plan of attack is also widely condemned as overly optimistic. He split his command of 616 officers and enlisted men of the 7th cavalry into three battalions. If the four companies of 2nd Cavalry had come along, Custer’s force would be 30% larger.3)Ibid The main force led by himself would be the right flanking column, Reno would have the left flanking attack column and Benteen and the pack train would be in the middle.  Custer also drastically underestimated the Native American force at about 1,500.

In theory, Custer’s plan of attack wasn’t that bad:

  • If Custer was up against a force that was only two or three times his size and
  • If Reno had pressed home his attack drawing the Native American warriors east toward him and
  • If Custer had been able to cross the Little Bighorn above the Native American camp and
  • If Custer had been able to attack the village while the warriors were engaged with Reno

Custer might have, indeed, had a great victory that would have propelled him to the US Presidency (as he had hoped). But none of these suppositions were correct.

Screen shot of the General Staff Scenario Editor where the battle of Little Bighorn scenario is being set up. Not the Order of Battle of the 7th Cavalry (with attached units of the 2nd Cavalry and Gatling guns) on the left. Units are positioned by clicking and dragging them from the Order of Battle Table on the left onto the map. Click to enlarge.

So, the question remains: what value for Leadership would you give to Custer?

Screen shot of the General Staff Army Editor showing the slider that sets the Leadership value for a commander. What value would you give Custer? Click to enlarge

By the way, there will be three separate Little Bighorn scenarios for the General Staff Wargaming System: historically accurate Order of Battle for the 7th Cavalry, the 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 3 Gatling guns.

References   [ + ]

1. The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
https://www.historynet.com/guns-custer-left-behind-burden.htm
2. Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose
3. Ibid

Using General Staff to Create a Simulation of the Battle of Isandlwana (January 22, 1879)

We recently asked you for your favorite 18th and 19th century (‘Age of Gunpowder’) battles to be included free for early backers of General Staff (see this link). We don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the Battle of Isandlwana was one of the top vote-getters.

Screen shot of the General Staff Scenario Design Module showing how to edit specific unit type versus unit type combat equations. In this example Blue Light Infantry (Zulu regiments) have been adjusted downward. Click to enlarge.

The Battle of Isandlwana is an especially challenging scenario to simulate because of the difference in technology (the British were armed with Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles while the Zulu warriors carried the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields). Yet, there are ‘Light Infantry’ unit types in both the Red and Blue forces, but clearly there is a very big difference between the Red (British) Light Infantry and the Blue (Zulu) Light Infantry units.

General Staff, which is based on the UMS Wargaming System, has the ability to adjust a unit’s combat firepower versus other unit types (see the above screen capture). In the above image we have set Blue’s Light Infantry (Zulu regiments) with a lower Attack Multiplier representing the Zulu troops lack of muskets and rifles. This matrix is available from the General Staff Scenario Design Module.

Screen capture of the British army Order of Battle for Isandlwana . Click to enlarge.

In the above screen capture from the General Staff Army Design Module we see a portion of the British Order of Battle at Isandlwana. The question is: what should Leadership, Morale and Efficiency be set for each of these units? How good were British commanders? What was the morale of native troops? How efficient were they? We would love to hear your comments.

A Tale of Two Wargames

I first conceived of General Staff as a very simple, introductory wargame that might be the first real wargame to be released for the Xbox (clearly, an under-served market). However, two things stopped this plan dead in its tracks: first Microsoft closed down the independent online games channel for Xbox and then, after being approached by a major wargame publisher, I was told that there was, “no market for wargames on the Xbox,” however a new version of my UMS series, could, “sell 25,000 units in its first year.”

So, I went back to the proverbial drawing board but I also asked you, the Grognards, what kind of a game you wanted. And here are the results:

Clearly, almost as many people want a simple, Kriegsspiel type game as want a complex military simulation.

After pondering this conundrum I had an epiphany: ‘simple’ wargames and ‘complex simulations’ actually share about 80% of the same code and data. Why not make a wargame that the user can decide which he wants to play? Sometimes people aren’t up for hours long complex simulations; other times people are.

Screen capture from General Staff showing the set up for ‘Simulation’ mode (note the button in the upper-left hand corner). Click to enlarge.

In the above screen capture the user has selected ‘Simulation’ mode. Note that there are headquarters units displayed. Headquarters play an important role in General Staff in simulation mode. All orders are given through the commanding general to the subordinate commander (via courier) and then (again via courier) to the actual unit. For example:

In this screen capture an order from Marshal Beresford will take 8 minutes of game time to be delivered to ths subordinate commander. (Click to enlarge)

It will take 8 minutes for the courier to ride from Marshal Beresford headquarters to the subordinate’s headquarters.

It will take an additional 6 minutes for a courier to deliver the order to the subordinate infantry unit. Click to enlarge.

Additional time (based on the headquarter’s Leadership value) will be added before the next courier is dispatched to deliver the order to the infantry unit. So for a command to go from Marshal Beresford, to Major General Stewart to Colborne’s Brigade will take a minimum of 14 minutes of game time plus additional time penalties based on the leadership abilities of Beresford and Stewart.

Detailed information about a unit in Simulation mode. Even the number of volleys remaining are tracked. Click to enlarge.

Lastly, the leadership of Colborne’s Brigade is used to calculate how quickly the unit will act upon the received orders. This is an example of the detailed Simulation mode for General Staff.

However, in Kreigsspiel mode,  all headquarters units are removed and the user issues orders directly to the units that immediately respond to the commands.

General Staff in Kreigsspiel mode. Note the button in the upper left-hand corner, headquarters units have been removed and unit strength is either 1,2,3 or 4.

Also, all unit information except a simple value (1-4) is ignored. Kriegsspiel mode is the simple, introductory wargame that I originally envisioned.