Planning and simulation

So far in my thinking aloud pieces on command and control the main idea to emerge is the importance of planning in battles. Other ideas are some thoughts on how sub commanders influence the battle, the idea of chaotic episodes versus inertia, and initiative and army morale. Without disregarding these latter thoughts, I want to develop the idea of planning and think about methods it might be simulated.

What is a plan? It is a series of orders which set out how formations are to be deployed and move, and when and where to deliver attacks on the enemy. An active plan implies movement. A passive plan is defensive. A further passive stance is the holding of forces in reserve – which might better be described as “no plan”. It gets a bit more complicated if a plan has both active and passive elements – like Napoleon’s at Austerlitz, where he delayed his attack.

A plan allows different elements to be coordinated, and for more remote elements to move. It may work at all four levels in the game structure: unit (brigade/regiment), division, corps and army. as you progress up the hierarchy, complexity increases and they take longer to prepare and implement. It requires information (on the position of your own units, on the enemy’s and on geography), and time to put together and communicate. Active plans expire as they are executed or as the enemy or unforeseen events interfere with them. A defensive plan expires if an enemy attack displaces the formation.

One further point may be added. The technology of time was still very basic in this era; synchronisation would not have been a precise affair. I haven’t looked at any actual plans – but I don’t think they contained much in the way of detailed timings, as modern plans do. (I have a memory that Austrian staff general Weyrother had a tendency to put extreme detail onf time and movement in his plans – but these seemed not to have meant much in practice).

Now to simulation. The most obvious way to simulate, at least at the army level, is for players to draw up some kind of plan themselves and issue orders. This was quite popular in early wargames systems, and still survives in some, but it has generally fallen out of fashion. It is quite time-consuming and the results are often rather unsatisfactory, especially without the use of an umpire to intermediate. Since my basic idea is for a two player game, this can’t be designed into the system. Instead we usually have some form of alternate move system, subject to constraints. Volley & Bayonet, the nearest published rules system to what I am trying to do, has a fixed alternate move system where players are free to move their units, subject only to a control radius for the senior officers. The plan is purely in players’ heads; the attacker moves first. Since the attacker is the side with an active plan, this simulates the effect of such a plan on the way forces move.

In V2 of DTN the alternate move system is maintained except for an attrition phase where artillery bombardment and skirmish firefights are resolved. But who moves first varies with the number of Command Points (CPs) that each side holds. CPs were meant to simulate a combination of planning and information – and they were used to drive forward active orders. A problem with this in the Vitoria game is that any advantage the attacking side has can be short-lived, as the passive side rapidly accumulates points and tends to move first. Moving first is not necessarily an advantage, of course. Many gamers prefer to react to the other player. One feature of this variable initiative is the “flip-flop”, which happens when initiative changes hands. In this case the flip-flopper moves twice before the other side can respond – an unequivocal advantage, which adds spice to proceedings. This might be said to simulate the shock an unexpected turn of events.

Two further innovations are worth bearing in mind – which I first came across in Geoffrey Wootten’s Corps d’Armée rules in the late 1980s.  These are stylised orders and interchanging initiative. Stylised orders mean giving each command a simple order chit such as “Assault”, “Break-off”, etc. which then give players a more limited menu of options. The ability to move from one order type to another is constrained. I brought an element of this into DTN V2, and it is used in the 1870 system – though in both cases the menu was very limited. With interchangeable initiative, the initiative passes between the players in the same movement period, as they move different units or unit groups. Gå På uses a version of this system. This brings coordination issues to the fore, and makes the who moves first issue less winner takes all, as well not confusing unrelated events in different parts of the battlefield. The DTN V2 movement structure has the possibility of such a system within it – I didn’t use it because I thought it would add complexity and take time – a judgement I still think is quite sound!

Taking a step back, I think the most surprising thing about these various alternate move and written order-free systems is not that they have problems, but that they work as well as they do.  My Vitoria game, for example, gave quite an acceptable flow of events without the British player committing a plan in advance. The worry is that a player will be able to change plans mid game will relative ease. But the plan tends to flow from where the units are positioned, and it is quite hard to “un-commit” a unit. There is possibility for abuse – but it can be contained.

One further approach needs to be mentioned before I move into solution mode. Card driven systems are quite popular, as in the Picquet system or Sam Mustafa’s Maurice. Cards are used, amongst other things to mix up moving and firing sequences, creating fog and uncertainty for the players. While I don’t rule out the use of event cards or some such to mix things up a bit I don’t like them in simulation games. The mechanism and the cards become the game. In Maurice, players are looking at their hand of cards more than their forces on the table. And events on the table stray far from historical narrative – even if it is possible to construct a plausible historical narrative after the event. They do help recreate the uncertainties of war, so that events such as ambushes can form part of the action, but it strays from what I am trying to achieve. They have a more plausible role in resolving battles in campaign simulations, where the battles are completely counterfactual, and it is more important to recreate the fog of war.

That looks like a bit of a natural break. Next post: ideas for DTN2.

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