07 December 2011

GameTalk - Surprise

On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it's sort of a natural to ask about surprise in wargames.

How do you model the presence of surprise for one side or the other? How do you do this when the given scenario is inherently based on someone being surprised? A wargame about Pearl Harbor, or D-Day, has much of the "oh crap!" surprise factor already removed just by the very topic of the game. So how can you (re)create the underlying tension of the surprise and shock given the nature of playing the wargame?

By: Brant


PaulV said...

First off, you can't effectively game "surprise after the fact" becasue the players are not surprised. The idea of "idiocy rules" that hamstring a player because he is "supposed to e surprised" are artificial and in effective. Besides being 'no fun'.

What was the "surprise" in the pearl harbor situation? It arose from the Japanese in effect "changing the rules" - the convential wisdom about th Japanese Carrier fleets capabilities was that it "did no have the movement points" to carry out the attack. In game terms a "Pearl Harbor" arises from a situation where the unit characteristics and rules governing interation are not set in stone.

If you can't break the rules, then by definition there can be no Pearl Harbor like surprise. Cards, "leaders", event tables, etc that give a player the opportunity, unbeknowst to his opponent, to "break the rules" is to me the only way o incorporate "capability surprise" of the type Pearl Harbor was.

Matt Purvis said...

I think the hidden in place concept and concealment in Advanced Squad Leader is an effective method of introducing surprise and the fog of battle into a tabletop wargame.

I recently played a scenario (Enter the Young) that included an opening artillery barrage on two map locations. The attacking player secretly declared two hexes for artillery. The defend sets up his defensive positions and troops. Next, the attacker is up and sets up his troops. Prior to the first turn, the artillery barrage is resolved.
The attacker was surprised because I didn't set up where he thought I would, hence the pre-planned arty was completely ineffectual.

As far as recreating the element of surprise that is lost due to the topic of the game, a chit based system could work. One player could have some randomly assigned/drawn capabilities or off-board forces that are hidden from the opposing player. While both players could know the range of possibilities that he may be facing, the random draw removes any certainty.

brtrain said...

Surprise is easier to model when you have a game system or structure that allows it. As Matt provides examples, two ways to do this are some kind of limited intelligence/fog of war or giving players some choices/abilities to exercise before the game starts that may render some pre-game assumptions moot.

Chits: In Summer Lightning, my Poland '39 game where units are activated by HQs chosen through random chit draws, I modeled first-turn surprise by letting the German activate his HQs by choice, not randomly, and having the Polish player select his defense tactic in battles at random. Simple way to send people running around without any involved idiocy rules.

Brant said...

Perhaps units with variable movement rates, rather than printed on the counters?

What about something like "Dawn's Early Light" where movement changes from turn-to-turn, or is chit-based on how much you can use, and you can vary it from turn-to-turn?

besilarius said...

It takes a while for my sludgy memory to pull some things up, but quite a few of the early Avalon Hill games, pre SPI, actually did have some hidden movement.
The first version of Gettysburg (which had large squares for movement areas) included observation post counters, and blank units were moved on the game map until spotted.
In Guadalcanal, there was hidden movement for the Japanese ground troops. On a tearaway pad, they were marked by numbered hex. (This was one of the reasons the game was not a commercial success. If the Japanese were not played with hidden movement, then by midgame the Americans had too much power to lose.)
Jutland and Midway both had hidden movement and both sides had to search to engage the enemy.
If I recall, Tom Shaw, the AH manager was always looking for ways to challenge the players and force them to think like a tactical commander.
I heard that when Jim Dunnagin (the whiz kid) came forward with Jutland, quite a few of the staff thought it would bomb. Shaw was intrigued and saw how it all held together.
At the time it was very much like a real evolution in gaming mechanics. Today, these old games are barely played, but were huge at the time.
I think Dunnagin's other AH design, 1914, had provisions for the top unit in a stack to show a blank face. A little hidden informationwhich allowed for some surpises during the game. A stack might have a couple of regular corps with an artillery unit, I think, but with this, the relatively useless cavalry units, could masquerade as heavy infantry formations. Made for the potential of surprise.
Before the mass production of SPI took over the gaming world, AH put out one wargame a year. (We won't talk about the Travels of St. Paul or VErdict as wargames)but there was some real creativity in their designs.