Home Forums General Game Design Pre-measurement Reply To: Pre-measurement

Phil Dutré

This has become a rather interesting thread, since it touches on the question what mechanics are considered to be “acceptable” in a miniature wargame these days.

I fully agree that a good set of rules encourages you to “play the period, not the rules”. Combined with the notion that the position identification of the player in the game is a military commander commanding his troops (a wholly separate discussion :-)), this then easily leads to arguments that we should not include mechanics in the game that a real commanding officer would not bother about. In the case of pre-measurement, this means estimating distances on the tabletop.

But this is a somewhat strange argument. Although the wargame (and the mechanics of the rules) might be inspired by real military history and practice, we are still dealing with players playing a game, and making decisions within the framework of the game. As such, we expect from players a set of skills such as being able to read a set of gaming rules, having some notions of estimating probabilities before making decisions, analyzing a simple decision tree (“if I do this, the he might do that, and then I will do this … “) etc. None of these immediately translate to skills needed by let’s say Harald commanding his troops at Hastings. Or only in the very vaguest sense.

Hence saying that not allowing pre-measurements does not make sense because real military leaders knew about distances or either outsourced them to junior commanders is a bit strange. The question should be whether that specific mechanic leads to a better game on the table, and will introduce some information (or lack thereof) and decision-making that would have an equivalent IRL. Not the mechanic should be the focus, but the result. After all, Napoleon also didn’t roll dice, but nevertheless, we all think that rolling dice is an essential part of any wargame.

Let me offer some examples of mechanics that have been part of wargaming rules over the last 100 years, but have fallen out of favour:

  • shooting toy cannon at toy soldiers (Little Wars, HG Wells). Frowned upon these days, although it’s probably one of the few activities that has a direct link to real military activity on the battlefield.
  • estimating shooting ranges (Fletcher Pratt naval rules) – a very popular set of rules in the 30s, and estimating distances was considered to be part of the game and skill of commanding a warship.
  • writing orders – if there’s one thing real commanding officers do, it’s writing orders. But we have removed it from our current wargames almost completely.

You can argue that all 3 of these activities have a direct equivalent in real military practice. But yet, they are not widely accepted (anymore) as mechanics in a wargame. Instead, we use tables, dice, rulers, … that have no direct equivalent. This is not right or wrong, it just shows that our thinking about wargaming mechanics can be very selective.

A good example of a set of rules where you do not allow pre-measurement is the space combat set Full Thrust. Each turn, you have to write orders about acc/dec your ship, turning, etc. Each player does this in secret, and all movement is executed simultaneously. The core engine of the game assumes you can think ahead, by estimating distances and turning arcs without pre-measuring them. In some cases, you even have to think 2 moves ahead because of moving asteroids. Although no-one would think that spaceships in the 45th century (or whatever …) do not have all sorts of automated navigation systems, allowing pre-measurement in Full Thrust would destroy much of the tension of the game. Hence, disallowing pre-measurement is not a direct translation from procedures IRL (or at least what we think they would be …), but a mechanic to make the game work.

A final note about players not being able to judge distances on the table:
Some players also cannot process numbers and probabilty and will attack cavalry with infantry without thinking, etc. A game is putting one player against another, using a set of skills. If you want to exclude any imbalance in skill, you should play a game based purely on luck. So again, I do not think this is a valid argument in favor of allowing pre-measurement as such.
It somehow reminds of the classic game of Monopoly. Kids just roll the dice, and move their pawns around the board without too much thinking. Once you know a bit or two about probability, you can better assess the relative value of properties in the game. What if one of the players does not realize this, or does not understand that some properties have a higher frequency of getting landed on? And if you’re really serious about Monopoly, you know it’s in essence a trading game, and players with better trading skills will win. What if a player is shy and does not trade well?
Taking into account all possible differences in skills of all players would lead to a very boring game …

  • This reply was modified 3 years, 8 months ago by Phil Dutré.

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