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23 November, 2005

 Products Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary Reinforcing Victory

Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary: Reinforcing Victory

Cossacks

I will be easing into the main design diary topic, which is the object of the game and the manner in which reinforcements are being handled, by an extremely odd route: I intend to begin by discussing cossacks.

There were cossacks at Austerlitz, as indeed there were at pretty much any battle in the period in which the Russian army was present. What did the cossacks do at the battle? Pretty much nothing, which is pretty much what was expected of them and pretty much what they did at every battle in the period. In the game, however, the Allied player could find plenty of things for the cossacks to do:

I was spending a fair amount of time worrying about these various ahistorical uses of cossacks and devising a series of special cossack rules in order to keep them in their proper historical role of doing not much of anything. A smarter man might have thought of this a lot sooner, but after a while it occured even to me that I was adding quite a bit of complexity to the game for rules that only affected the game’s weakest units and which were collectively intended to make the game work as if the cossacks weren’t even there, and that a much more efficient way to accomplish this and to nicely simulate the cossacks’ role in the battle would be remove their units from the game. And so, with that flash of insight, the cossacks are gone, and with them goes a small increment of production cost and about two-thirds of a column of rules.

I am confident that there are many designers who would not have made that decision, but for me it was really not a hard decision to make once it finally occured to me. Although Napoleon’s Triumph will be complex as games in general go, it will not be complex as wargames go, and it especially will not be complex as far as big wargames go. The idea here is that the way to keep the game simple (as wargames go at any rate) without the result being simplistic is to stay focused on what is really important to simulate, and abstract away the rest as much as possible. While this approach can’t give everything a good treatment, it can give the important things a good treatment without cluttering up the game with elements of marginal value.

Hidden
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This leads to my next item. Readers of previous entries will recall the long discussion of dummies, hidden forces, and hidden units. If you look to the left, you’ll see a worksheet I made up for players to indicate which hidden units would be assigned to which leaders. The worksheet also included my first cut at actually laying out how French reinforcements would show up (more on that later). Anyway, the idea was that before the game, the sheet would be cut in half (assuming you didn’t have one left over from the previous game – each sheet is good for 8 games) and each player would get his half, and then jot his information down. The reason the sheet is in black and white is because the sheets are a consumable: I expected players to need to make photocopies or download and print out copies on black-and-white printers, and so the sheet was designed to not have any awkward dependencies on color (or even quality grayscale).

So anyway, I laid out the sheet, printed a copy and then went to the game and try out my newly-drafted set-up sequence, and you know what? I didn’t like it at all. And so, I considered my options. Did the game really need hidden units? The cost did seem to be high. Players would have to fill out forms, figure out where to keep the paper where they could see it and their opponents could not, have to deal with the hassle of either looking up the strengths of their own corps or else memorizing them, and there had to be rules to cover how hidden units worked. This feature would significantly slow play and complicate learning and setting up the game, and in the end it just didn’t seem worth the trouble: so now hidden units are gone. The decisions to remove hidden units and cossacks (see, they are connected after all) were arrived at almost simultaneously and for almost exactly the same reason: the game’s complexity budget was simply being very poorly spent on these peripheral problems. The game needed to focus on what mattered; cossacks and hidden units were really just chrome and they just had to go.

With hidden units gone, the hidden information sheets had only only one item of hidden information left: the reinforcement option. Basically, the way it worked was that both players would write down a letter from A to D. The Allied player would then reveal what he wrote to the French player, who would look up the result on the French Reinforcement Schedule. If the result was “Discovered”, then the French player would reveal the result to the Allied player. Otherwise, if the result was “Hidden”, he kept it secret.

This brings us (finally) to the main topic of this diary: how the reinforcement rules has helped to solve the closely linked problems of the burden of attack and the design of the game’s victory conditions. Readers of previous diary entries will be familiar with these problems, but in a nutshell the difficulty is that in a game on Austerlitz it is ambiguous which side should have the burden of attack. The French had the stronger army, but feigned weakness and lured the Allies into attacking them. If the victory conditions place the burden of attack on the Allies, they have a difficult time winning, but if the burden of attack is placed on the French, the result doesn’t feel much like Austerlitz.

Historically, the French had two late-arriving corps (commanded by Bernadotte and Davout), both of which the French concealed from the Allies. The Allied misapprehension of French strength was tied to these two corps, but the Allied player has no such misapprehension: he knows all about them. This problem is an instance of a class of historical simulation problems: uncertainty vs. hindsight. There are three basic approaches to this class of problem:

  1. Ignore it. This approach actually is the most common one in simulations since the problem is so pervasive that any other choice applied widely is completely self-defeating to the idea of a historical simulation. In pretty much any wargame, the players know a lot more than their historical counterparts did, and that’s just the way it is.
  2. Coerce the players. In this approach, the rules coerce one or both players to act as if they didn’t have this knowledge. This is the choice made with regard to the French reinforcements in Bonaparte at Marengo. The Austrians know the French reinforcements are coming, but the victory conditions force them to advance anyway and risk being defeated by them.
  3. Randomize it. This approach takes away the players’ knowledge by making it so that what happened historically might not happen in the game. This is the approach taken by Friedrich with regard to political events.

If for no other reason than that they are accustomed to it, players have an almost infinite tolerance for the problems inherent in the first approach (ignoring it), and a complete appreciation for its advantages. As a result, it is the default approach in the design of historical games; the other two approaches tend only to become attractive when the first approach clearly doesn’t work well. The second approach is in general the second-best choice, provided that it can be done without creating rules that over-constrain the player or introduce too much complexity in the game. In general, with regard to the second approach, it is much better to constrain ends than means if possible: in Bonaparte at Marengo, the distance the Austrians must travel requires them to advance rapidly in order to get there (the ends are constrained), but the Austrians remain free as to how they advance: there are no special rules that force Austrian units to move or attack (the means are unconstrained). The third approach, because it introduces ahistorical elements into a game, is not very popular in “heavy” simulations, but it has proven very popular in a whole class of lighter historical games; the randomness introduced may not always be historical, but it can definitely add spice to a game and the consequent ability to simulate historical uncertainty can create a dimension of historical realism that more “realistic” simulations that restrict themselves to the first two approaches cannot.

With regard to French reinforcements at Austerlitz, the problem could not be ignored. I had not been able to come up with any solutions based on coercion, and so I decided to try randomization, and include the possibility in the game that either or both corps might not show up. If, in fact, probabilities favored one or both corps not arriving, then an Allied attack becomes rational, and the burden of attack could be shifted to the Allies. Obviously, however, a random event of that size could hugely affect the balance of the game, and so I decided to adjust the victory conditions in response to the arrival of the corps: the more favorable the reinforcement arrival for either side, the harder their victory conditions. Assuming all went well, the players wouldn’t have any reason to prefer one reinforcement schedule over another on any basis other than personal preference as to what style of play (offensive vs. defensive) they preferred.

There was a lot to like about this approach. It created a range of different kinds of games, since the French army would vary in strength from game to game, and the situation would vary accordingly. I later got the idea to incorporate an option where the Allies could discover the French reinforcements (which certainly could have happened historically – Napoleon was deeply worried about exactly that possibility) and then they would go on the defensive. Adding the Allied discovery option created another variation to the game, essentially a new scenario. In spite of these advantages, there were three things that bothered me:

  1. The mechanism of writing reinforcement options and looking up the result in a table marred a game that otherwise had no writing and no tables.
  2. The ahistorical nature of the variations. My goals for the game really were that it be a simulation, even if a simple one as simulations go, and I wasn’t entirely happy about this, even though the variations were plausible and did simulate the real historical uncertainty.
  3. There was a loophole: the Allied player could take a chance, go on the defensive, and ignore the possibility that the French reinforcements might be late or not come. This plan would certainly lose for the Allies if the French reinforcements did not show up, but if they did, the Allies would definitely have the edge because of the tough French victory conditions that were tied to the secret arrival of both corps. This loophole might be especially attactive to a weaker Allied player who felt he would almost certainly lose in a straight-up contest, but with this plan he could give himself a chance. (Having been burned in an unpublished multi-player game which broke when a weak player decided to play for second, I took this gamesmanship problem seriously.)
Reinforcements

The solution to the first problem was to change the mechanism so that the French player made a blind draw of a colored token. He would then conceal the token from the Allied player while looking up the result in the table on the right (which was printed on the mapboard). If the result was Allied discovery, he would then reveal the result to the Allied player. Otherwise, he kept it secret until the end of the game (of course, the Allied player would have long since guessed based on what reinforcements the French player brought on, so showing it at the end was really just a verification mechanism).

The second problem didn’t seem to admit to a solution other than dumping the whole idea, which I was more than reluctant to do, since it was the only idea I had that would work at all. I might not have been entirely happy about it, but there are always problems you would like to solve that in the end you don’t, so I was resigned to the fact that this was probably one of them. On the bright side, Friedrich was very well liked even by hard-core grognards, in spite of its extensive use of mechanisms of this kind. It was possible that I was worrying more about it than I should.

Ironically, it was the third problem which worried me the most, and which seemed the hardest to solve, whose solution not only proved easy, but gave me a way to solve the second problem as well. The solution was to tie the victory conditions not just to the schedule, but to what the French player actually did: if the French player chose not to bring on his reinforcements, then he would only have to satisfy the same conditions as if he didn’t have them. Thus, if the Allied player went on the defensive, betting that the French player had drawn purple and so would have to attack him, the French player could in response not bring his reinforcements on, and thus only have to satisfy the conditions attached to green. This change made any Allied attempt to guess the secret reinforcement schedule futile: the Allied player would have to attack or he would lose: he needed to either take the green reinforcement objectives or force the French to bring on their reinforcements to prevent it.

It may not be instantly obvious how the solution to the third problem addresses the second, but in fact it does. If you will recall the three approaches to solving the hindsight problem, the second option was coercion: forcing a player to act as if he doesn’t have knowledge that in fact he does. In the game, even if the Allied player knew that all the French reinforcements were available, as they were historically, he would still have to attack in order to force the French player to bring them on, and only once they were on, could he go on the defensive.

My first thought when I realized this was that I could junk the entire system of having multiple French reinforcement schedules: I didn’t need it to make the game work. For now, however, I’ve decided to keep a modified version of it. If they want to, the players can choose one of the schedules to play (both of them knowing in advance which it was), or they could do a blind draw, including whichever possibilities they wanted, so if they wanted to draw but only put the purple, yellow, and green tokens in the mix, they could do so. There wasn’t any reason from a design point of view to mandate any particular combination of choices; it could be left entirely up to the players.

And so, we have, in a way, returned to cossacks, which were dropped from the game because the rules to include them couldn’t be justified in the game’s complexity budget. The rules for variable French reinforcements, on the other hand, have to pass the same test, but it seems to me (at least for now) that they do. Each reinforcement schedule produces a different game, which has the potential to greatly enrich the replay value of the game, especially when you consider that each schedule can be applied to all of the four scenarios. Thus, each combination, in a way, constitutes a scenario in itself, for a total of sixteen different variations. Of particular importance is that four of those variations are within the scenario that has the shortest playing time, increasing that short scenario’s replay value.

Map Board
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It would be nice to wrap up this diary entry at this point, having completed a circular compositional structure, but unfortunately there is still one point remaining to be covered: just what are the victory conditions anyway? To answer that question, I’ve added an update showing the current mapboad, which you can see to the right. Unfortunately, you will need to click on the image to open it in its own window to see it, since it isn’t legible at the small size it is shown in this window. From here I’ll just assume that you have done so and make references to the map as I need to.

On the map, objectives are indicated with stars. There are four different colors: red, black, blue and green. Readers familiar with Bonaparte at Marengo will of course be familiar with stars denoting objectives, although there is a graphical variation here: instead of using filled stars, they are outlined. This reduces their visibility. In Bonaparte at Marengo, the objectives are all along the edge of the map, but in Napoleon’s Triumph, they are closer to the middle, and I thought that they were visually too strong when filled in, and so I opted to just use outlines, which quieted them. Anyway, the red and black objectives are on the heights occupied by the Allied army at the start of the battle. The blue and green objectives are located well behind the French lines. Although either side can win a decisive victory by demoralizing the enemy army, a marginal victory can be won by conditions that vary with the reinforcement schedule as follows:

Game balance will only become clear through playtesting, but it isn’t difficult to make minor adjustements by manipulating the number and location of the different objective stars. There is a complication, however, in that I’d like to keep the objectives the same across all four scenarios, which will complicate the process and may prove ultimately impossible. Still, that is my first preference and I will be working to hold to it if I can.