Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Wargames in the Class, a slightly different view.

Recently I have read with interest professor Phil Sabin article on “supplying wargames” appeared in the latest issue of Battles. I have to confess that in my day job, or at least pseudo job, I am one of professor Sabin assistant and some of the events referred in the article were already know to me as a direct participant. Strengthened by the experience I have acquired in the past year with him last December I ran a simulation session with my students from the “Aspects of Naval History” class using Flying Colors from GMT. MY experience shown some striking differences from what Phil told us in the article and with things I had been told by him in the past.

Before discussing them I think it is necessary to introduce a bit my “experiment”. I had 8 students, all very motivated (got a very good seminar group), one of them with simulation experience and some of them already exposed to Professor Sabin Second World War game. Still with the exception of Tom I would say an inexperienced class. The aim of the session was to illustrate some aspects of age of sail naval warfare, mainly dependence on wind, strength and weaknesses of linear tactics, relative ineffectiveness of gunnery except on prolonged time and the cumulative nature of damage modelling in the era. Flying Colors was an obliged choice, it is easy, quite accurate and does not requires extensive book keeping. I used the action of Cape Ortugal (a small French squadron trying to escape back to France after Trafalgar) because it has only few ships involved.

My experience was, that despite Phil statements against using commercial products in class, the experiment was successful and probably more effective than using Phil tailored games. Certainly it compared much more favourably that my experience in running Fire and Maneuver at Shrivenam. A lot of that is related to the game “ergonomics”. Commercial design tend to have a much better system to present information. The students were able to pick up the basics of the game quickly after a turn and read the information necessary to make decision (I was responsible for running the game and working with the tables anyway). At Shrivenam the “cheer and cheerful” (or awfully crap according to your point of view) approach to ergonomics of fire and maneuver was the biggest obstacle to play. I reckon that in the same time I used to run my Fire and Maneuver session it the DCDC, including the fact the Brigadier “ordered” (actually politely suggested, but he is an one star and I am a former equivalent of a 2nd Lieutenant and that will never change in my mind) to play a couple of introductory turns very slowly to acquaint the players with the game I could have run a comparable sized scenario of Nations at War or Panzergrenadier.

Rules complexity is indeed a critical component of playing time but how information and results are presented is also critical. In Flying Colors the students were able to read the info on the counters, look at the damage roster and making decisions. They did not know the gunnery tables but realized gunnery was more effective at close range and the number of guns in the ship. Sails were progressively torn away and movement was thus reduced. The information was readily available and readable. On the opposite side Fire and Maneuver hide information. The differentiation between German and British counters is awful, losses and turns are tracked in an awkward way after a while, especially for the British player tracking losses is difficult. The players had to ask me of the situation. Not to mention the terrain on the map was quite unreadable for the non initiated. I was the only one able to have all relevant information and retransmit then to the players. While the other games we use in class are definitely more “player friendly” still they lack the ability to present information on the same way of a commercial game. Or you know everything in advance or you have to rely on the “referee” to constantly supply information. No on map information the quirky point of the rules, the “counters” are not visually indicating what they are doing (yes cheep and cheerful and chunky 3D but they do not convey any real information… plus the player reaction when they see knocked down pieces is to stand up them…) .

After my little experiment I am no more completely following Phil approach. Yes, long and detailed does not equal better, but the inverse is not true. Certainly the bias shown on the article against commercial simulations is misplaced. It also meant that the package itself is important as the engine if not more when the “playabilty” of the simulation is concerned. That remind me of a chat with a friend who happened to be a fighter pilot. He flew Mirage F1, F4 Phantoms and now F-18. The F1 was a nightmare, he did not like it too much and the controls seemed to be in the wrong places. The F4 was great, he loved tow more pair of eyes, but again some of the controls he needed were closer to his backseater than him. The F-18 was a Cadillac, everything was where it was needed.

I would say that if a game is purported to take 10 minutes by the designer the designer had failed to cater for players. He knows how to deal with the information flow, but the players will be able to gather info so quickly?

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