17 April 2011

Thoughts on Recon in Wargaming

Originally written by moi in response to a discussion of recon in the Battles Magazine folder at CSW...

There are a lot of games with good spotting rules (I happen to like LnL), but once you spot, you have perfect intel. There's no spotting with "a squad in the woods" and no idea of the capabilities. You see it perfectly or you don't see it at all. It's rare in a boardgame to have the reaction of "Holy crap! I knew there was something over there, but I thought it was just a couple of lost guys, not 3 machine guns!"

It's also rare that you even have a maintenance collection point on the map, much less some overeager scout call back on the radio in a panic hollering "there's 11 tanks over this hill!" when only 3 of them will actually move under their own power.

And that's just the tactical level. At the operational level, as soon as anyone in your force sees the enemy, everyone sees the enemy. There's no time lag in reporting, or any radio retrans issues that might keep someone from accurately reporting the location of an enemy unit from 50km away.

Finally, and really most importantly, because so many of the real-world "unknowns" are "known" on the tabletop, it's hard to even develop a solid recon plan that would be designed to inform you of things you need at decision points. With hindsight, everyone charges into Gettysburg like it's Ragnarok. Was that was really happened on the ground? Wasn't there a lot more bumbling and misinformation floating around than we allow for in the game?

Recon is designed to not just find bad guys, but find the right kind of information about the bad guy in a timely fashion for you to make key decisions as you execute your plan. For those specific purposes, recon units are designed, organized, equipped, and employed.

Given that so many of their objectives are completed as soon as you cut the shrinkwrap, it's a challenge to find an appropriate use of them in battle, without simultaneously putting them into play where they could sway some other part of the battle where they never would've been present (this is especially true when light cav isn't used for recon in games between 1740-1870 or so). If you take them out of their recon role, but instead use them elsewhere as just another fighting force (many WW3/Germany games are bad about this) then you've dramatically altered the shape of the battle in a way that would never happen.

What we tried to do with the Warfighter games was to give recon units something to do other than just be another set of guns on the battlefield. They are given specific tasks that emulate - but can't ever truly replicate - their actual employment on the battlefield. This keeps you from just adding extra guns to the fight while still keeping them in the battle. It also makes the counter-recon fight more important because you deny the opponent victory points if you can defeat the recon.

By: Brant


Guardian said...

I feel like a gadfly or Devil's advocate saying this, understanding your devotion to tabletop gaming, but a well-designed computer wargaming system could address exactly these kinds of issues by presenting each player with "the truth as *they* know it."

I really hope we get a chance to collaborate on a system that combines the best of tabletop gaming with the best of electronic gaming sometime. But, for now, I must get back to work.

-- Guardian

Brian said...

Leaving out electronic wargaming, which I agree could solve a lot of these fog-of-war problems, I think minitures wargames can do well in this regard - the better operational-scales rules sets allow for some map amneuvering before the tabletop battle, and there are some subterfuges players can use for fog of war - e.g. the white index card that is advancing toward you resolves itself into something more definite as you get closer - I even read a simple set of rules once where the players put their units (or rather, slips of paper representing the units) in matchboxes, and moved the matchboxes around until they neared each other!

I think more of this needs to be done in paper wargames, but it regularly isn't done because
a) it's difficult to write rules to cover these kinds of situations,
b) it takes a hell of a lot more time to play out,
c) players find it frustrating to scout things out - they want to get right to the battle,
d) the "everyone sees the enemy" problem could be addressed by teams of players on each side, but that's hard to assemble, and
e) anyway it's impossible to resolve the above problem if you are playing solo, as most games are actually played, unless you want to do the familiar "advance up the corridor and get engaged by random enemy units along the way", which gets old very quickly.

EastwoodDC said...

Most, maybe ALL wargames, are specifically about "guns on the battlefield". Therefore Recon will always be secondary to the guns.

So how do you write a game that is about Recon, and not guns? It seems you might start by removing combat almost entirely, and make it a game of "finding" things hidden on the map. Stratego comes to mind as a game that already does this to some degree.

Zachary said...

First off, great piece about what players know and how that knowledge is represented in games. It made me think of the "200 Foot General" discussions in relation to miniature gaming.

Your five bullet points about why board games don't address this seems right on the mark, mainly because of point b) and e), but possibly because of point c) as well.

Point d) "team play" seems to address command and control issues more than battlefield intelligence, or at least that is my experience with miniatures. Playing with three players per side, each commanding a portion of a battalion, corps or army, can lead to some interesting command and control situations, especially if you don't allow table talk. The players can still see the entire table and opposing forces, in most games, they just aren't allowed to talk about how they are going to respond. The only way around this situation would be to play a double blind game, but that is difficult with miniatures, mainly because of resources, (you're going to need three of everything, including the terrain board), plus, you'll need an umpire and lots of time.

How a board game would represent recon at different levels of command would be interesting. At first glance, it seems it would be easier to design a game that puts the player in the role of someone closer to the action, say a tactical level game, than an operational level game, but I'm not sure this if that is true. The only games I can think of right now at an operational level that try to incorporate recon units as they were meant to be used are by Kevin Zucker with his operational level Napoleonic war games. Do any of the games from the Operational Combat Series by MMP handle recon well? I've never played them, so I have no idea how that system handles recon.