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16 November, 2005

 Products Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary The Scope of Things to Come

Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary:
The Scope of Things to Come

A major problem in the design of Napoleon’s Triumph has been setting the scope of the design. Scope, in this sense, refers chiefly to the limits of time and space imposed on the design, the material implementation of which take the form of the map and the time track. There are, however, additional scope decisions, generally regarding how events that happen off-map or before the official start time of the game are handled. These additional scope decisions, although less obvious than those of time and space, can make a very great difference in the nature of a game. Each type of scope will be considered in turn.

Scope Limits Applied to Space: The Map

The map coverage in Napoleon’s Triumph was actually settled fairly early in the process (although it is worth noting that Napoleon’s Triumph was not my first attempt at an Austerlitz game based on Bonaparte at Marengo: in late 2004 I began a one-map version of Austerlitz, but decided that the game really needed a larger map: I generally date the beginning of the design of Napoleon’s Triumph to the decision to make a two-map version of the battle). The map scope is not a matter I’ve ever felt much need to revisit, although the layout of the board does create some dead space on the southern edge of the map for which I have not yet found a good use.

Although the map coverage was not a difficult design problem, it occurs to me that I’ve never gone into it before, so I will do so here. Below is the primary source map used in the creation of the game map, with a red rectangle denoting the mapboard limits of Napoleon’s Triumph (the map is not readable at this size, but you can click to zoom in in its own window):

Click on the image above to open in its own window

I’ll assume for the purposes of this discussion that you’ve zoomed it so you can read the map. The battlefield at Austerlitz was bounded on three of its four sides by significant terrain barriers. In the north, the Moravian Alps were too rugged and and too heavily forested for either army to operate in; consequently, it made a natural northern edge for the map. In the east, the boggy Raussnitz would have been a natural defensive line for Napoleon, but he elected instead to withdraw beyond it, leaving it as a barrier to retreat in the Allied rear. The map was pushed to east of the Raussnitz, far enough past it for the game to depict a fight along that line. Just off-map to the east is the city of Austerlitz, which in addition to being the city that gave the battle its name, was the main organization area for the Allied army, which had advanced from Olmütz along the Brünn-Olmütz highway (the highway that runs across the top of the game board), before turning south to Austerlitz in order to prepare to advance against the French right. The southern edge of the battlefield is even boggier stream known to history as the Littawa, although the map suggests that local usage may have differed. There were several ponds on the southern edge of the battlefield that had been drained by the time my source map was made (mid-late 19th century) although in you know where to look you can still see the outlines of them on the map. Historically, the Allies skirted the southern edge of the Littawa in both advancing to and retreating from the battlefield, but otherwise nothing of consequence happened south of it.

The most interesting scope problem in laying out the map was in locating the western edge. While the Gold Bach stream might be a natural barrier in the vicinity, the Gold Bach was on the battlefield, not on its edge. This required that the west edge of the map be further west than the Gold Bach, but there is no natural barrier on which it could be bounded (the Schwarzawa being too distant to put on map without a major scale change). An additional consideration is that while the Allied army never made it much past the Gold Bach, they planned to do so, and so I wanted, if possible, to include as much of this area on the map as practicable. The major limit in this regard was the desire to keep the east bank of the Raussnitz in play (and also the area in the northeast corner in play, since there was actual fighting there between Lannes’ V Corps and the Allied Advance Guard under Bagration. Part of the solution chosen was to tilt the map slightly, but it was also necessary to reduce the scale slightly from the target scale, which was originally to match that of Bonaparte at Marengo.

One interesting comparison that could be made would be to compare the map scope of Napoleon’s Triumph with some of the other games on Austerlitz that have been done through the years. Here are some side-by-side comparisons (Napoleon’s Triumph in red; comparison games in blue):

Austerlitz - The Battle of the Three Emperors (SPI)

Battle of Austerlitz (SPI)

Austerlitz 1805 (The Gamers)

Austerlitz: December 1805 (Columbia)

In comparing the above, it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong approach to a problem such as this: the frame doesn't exist in reality, it is entirely an artifact of the design process. Of these coverage frames, “Battle of Austerlitz” is the most space efficient, but for my purposes that orientation is actually too space efficient: it has so little dead space that there is almost no room left for play aids!

Because the map edges are artificial, it is tempting to think that they must always be negatives in terms of the design: that is, that they always make games more complicated by necessitating edge-of-map rules and less realistic in that map edges create unflankable positions which would not have been unflankable in reality. These problems with map edges are real enough, but like many limitations, they can in some circumstances turn out to be of benefit. One benefit is that the edge of the map creates an automatic blind area where units can be hidden without the tedium of writing down positions. At a battle like Austerlitz, where sight lines were limited, this can actually simulate a real condition, that neither commander had solid information about what an enemy army was doing when it was not within actual sight. A second benefit is that it allows players to only have to actually do the work of physically moving units once they are close enough to the action for their exact location to matter, which can speed play. Finally, a third benefit is that they can subtly enforce real-world command limitations. It might seem that without an edge to the battlefield, for example, that the armies would be able to spread out indefinitely, but this would have created serious command and control problems if the armies had historically attempted such a thing, which would have required rules to simulate them. Since the physical size of the mapboard prevents such deployment, it is a cheap (if coarse) way of simulating a real-world constraint.

Scope Limits Applied to Time: Scenarios

Scenarios in wargames are typically created in two ways: by divisions in space and by divisions in time; sometimes these are done separately, sometimes together. A Gettysburg game, for example, might include four scenarios: one for each of the three days of battle, and one for the entire three days. At the same time, a large Gettysburg game might include scenarios for the fights for particular terrain features on particular days, such as Little Round Top on day 2 of the battle or Picket’s Charge against Cemetary Ridge on day 3.

This strategy of scenario creation by reduction is also a way to deal with the long playing time of many wargames: the scenarios created by reduction can usually be completed in a fraction of the time of the full game. For some very large multi-map games, it also provides a way for dealing with the size requirements, as the scenarios might not require all of the maps.

The application of the Bonaparte at Marengo game system to Austerlitz did not obviously require scenarios at all. Bonaparte at Marengo is a short game, taking typically two hours to complete. If Austerlitz was a larger battle than Marengo in terms of forces and battlefield size (about twice the size), it was also shorter in terms of time (about half the duration). On the face of it, there is actually little reason to think that Napoleon’s Triumph would require more time to play than Bonaparte at Marengo.

Although in fact Napoleon’s Triumph is not a straight port of the Bonaparte at Marengo game system (the presence of leaders alone makes a considerable difference in how the game plays), it still isn’t obvious that the game system changes would substantially alter playing time; even if they increased it by 50% (and it is possible that the changes might actually reduce playing time rather than increasing it), that would still leave the game with a three hour playing time, very manageable in a single evening.

Time Tracks

While Napoleon’s Triumph does not have the usual problems that motivate the creation of scenarios, it does have another problem that scenarios can be useful in addressing. That problem is replay value. Ironically, one of the problems with Napoleon’s Triumph is that it is projected to have a short playing time, and yet it is a big game. One way to measure value is to consider the cost of a game vs. hours of playing time. If the object is to give two players twenty hours of enjoyment for a price of $50, then a game that takes twenty hours to play is at a huge advantage over a game that takes two hours to play: the twenty hour game doesn’t need to have ANY replay value to hit the twenty hour threshold, but the two hour game has to be good for ten plays.

The time-vs.-cost equation is of course simplistic, in that it a game that takes twenty hours to play may prove difficult for people to find time to play at all, which can undercut the value considerably, not to mention that “learning games” can be very expensive undertakings indeed. Overall, I’m quite happy to make games that have a short playing time and which can therefore readily be played. Nevertheless, the problem of replay value is quite real. One of the attractive features of Marengo as a battle was that I thought there were a lot of possibilities in it, due to the “fire-hose” effect of the way the Austrian army comes in and the numerous choices the French have in where to divert, slow, or try to stop them. Austerlitz, on the other hand, if viewed within the scope of 2 December (the historical day of battle), the situation is different: the armies are much more committed by their deployment to specific plans and have less freedom to alter them. One way to measure the freedom the armies have is to look at the distance from the enemy vs. the depth of deployment: both armies are deployed close together on a wide front; meaning that redeployments along their front take more time than it would take for the enemy to move to engage them, which tends to encourage the units of both armies to move (or defend) against the enemy forces immediately in front of them rather than maneuver.

A traditional way to open up a game that is over-constrained as a result of the historical deployment is to allow the players to depart from it to some degree. This method is in fact used in Napoleon’s Triumph as well, and its effectiveness is reinforced by hidden information. Players do not have to follow the historical organizations but are allowed flexibility in assigning units to their leaders. The players first assign a fixed number of units to each leader (the type of unit is up to the player). Left over after this are six French and ten Allied units. These left-over units are then assigned secretly to any of the eight leaders. The secretly assigned units are only brought into play when they are in contact with the enemy. The general result with regard to the 2 December scenario is that the deployment follows the general historical outline, but can still significantly depart from it.

To open up the game more, another scenario was added which starts at 11:00AM 1 December, which is the time the Allied army moved out to its attack positions against the French army. In the game, the Allies can bring their forces onto the map where they please and are not constrained in any way to the historical deployment of 2 December. The French deploy in much the same way for this scenario as for the 2 December scenario, but have many more options afterwards due to the greater distance between the armies. The downside of this scenario is that it is longer (16 turns against 9 for the 2 December scenario) than the main scenario. There are two questions that could reasonably be raised about this scenario: First, why not just adopt a freer deployment, and second, isn’t this really an ahistorical what-if scenario? With regard to the first question, in general, making a deployment freer without creating games that are won or lost based on the deployment is a problem generally solved by making the process slower and more interactive, and eventually you run into the problem of whether players can contest each other’s deployment, and if so, how such contests can be resolved. In short, as the deployment becomes freer, it starts to bump into all of the problems that the rest of the game system were designed to solve, which makes simply backing up the clock the easiest and most effective ‘design’ for such a system. With regard to the second (and easier) question, there is nothing that is more or less historical for one start time than another. All wargames are what-if scenarios in one sense by their very nature, and while it can be a complicated (and interesting) question as to what exactly is and is not permissible in a “historical” as opposed to “hypothetical” scenario, the start time for the game does not, I think, constitute a meaningful boundary between the two.

Two more scenarios were also added to the mix: one that starts at 7:00AM on 1 December and one that starts at 7:00AM on 30 November. Historically, the Allied army spent the day of 30 November and the morning of the following day re-organizing their army (a re-organization whose effects were still being felt on 2 December, the day of the battle. This period, however, was also an opportunity for the Allies as the French reinforcements had not yet all arrived by this time. These two scenarios allow the Allies to advance early, but with command penalties to reflect their organizational problems. While the greater length of these scenarios in terms of their turn count will likely result in their being less played than the first two, I suspect (and hope) that the playing time difference will prove less than the turn count difference would suggest. Handicapped by their command penalties, there will be pressure on the Allies to push for a result early and not simply to proceed at the historical pace and wait for 2 December before attempting a decisive engagement.

Adding scenarios may appear to be just an all-around good thing, but like many useful tools, it does have its drawbacks in game design. The most serious of these regards play-testing: for any given play-test time budget, it is easier to thoroughly test a single scenario than multiple scenarios. Suppose there is a play-test budget of 100 hours: with only one scenario, all 100 hours can be put against it, but with four scenarios, each gets only 25 hours. The game system can be well-vetted regardless of the number of scenarios, but as the number of scenarios increases, the thoroughness of the testing of their balance declines. In Napoleon’s Triumph, the plan is to distribute the weight of scenario testing towards the two shorter scenarios as they are the ones that it is the most important to get right. I hope, of course, to get them all right, but as a practical matter, if the two shorter ones are well-balanced, and at least one of the two longer scenarios are as well, I will feel that I came out of it all right. Of course, an unbalanced scenario actually does have one real use: there are always games involving players of unequal experience where an unbalanced scenario can be just the thing that is wanted!

Other Scope Limits

The attentive reader may have noticed that this entry has fallen short of what was originally promised. The question of scope limits other than those of time and space have not yet been addressed. Of course, other readers may have lost interest by now due to the length of this entry, and those readers have part of the answer to why the promised treatment hasn’t been delivered. The remaining part of the discussion of scope limits leads into another topic, the object of the game, that is richly deserving of its own diary entry, and so will have to wait until next time...