Granularity in Wargames

Lately I’ve been thinking about wargames. Particularly the design of wargames, not so much layout, but how we actually receive the information from the game. I’ve realized that a great deal of what we deal with today is simply an effort to use the hex-and-counter of the 1970’s and 1960’s. Is this ideal or is it just a relic from when the granularity of the information was relegated to cardboard?


IMG_0245First it’s a matter of scale. At the top end we have a game like Risk that models scale on an almost continental level. Russia for example is one space. The United States is two spaces. Maneuvering of any sort is out of the question, you’re shifting assets on a global scale. Who cares if you can envelop that flank, it’s abstracted in the scale.

Next up we break it down into Army Groups, or clusters of divisions, support assets, and the like. At this scale we see landmasses, but not the terrain. Russia might become districts, or in the case of the US, entire states. We have some room for maneuvering, but not much. Even combat itself has to be abstracted. We’re still on a massive scale, and one well suited to cardboard. At this level we can simulate the bulk of WW2 into a tabletop map. You might even finish it in an evening.

I’m not aware of any PC games at this scale, and even boardgames just some older SPI/Avalon Hill games. In my eye it’s just too big, it’s hard to get lost in the narrative. (You could argue Settlers of Catan operates at this scale)

Now we come to the meat and potatoes. Division level. Now we’re at a point where terrain and location matters. We can start shifting these counters around and actually make maneuvering an exercise in combat. Scale is still kind of funny, we’re talking about tens of thousands of troops. In a game like Gary Grigsby’s War in the East or one of the paper monsters we can create a large static front, swing in some mobile Panzers, and manipulate the campaign. But what about granularity?encircled

Just because we see a wall of counters doesn’t mean it’s a water tight front. Go back into Napoleonics for example and then a Division was shoulder to shoulder, but on the Eastern Front we’d have 15,000 men covering a 50 kilometer hex. This gives us an interesting density of 3 men per meter. But they’re not in a line, it’s a hex, so those same troops occupy pockets throughout the area.

At this point we’re down to brigades, and really companies. Everything is starting to get, well, granular. What was a blob of a million troops is now maybe a thousand, or even a few hundred. The scale of our game has dropped significantly. Now we’re into games like Command Ops 2, or some of the Tiller games. It’s no longer feasible to play all of Europe at this level on paper. On a PC, sure, you could. (But not with Tillers interface)

If we look at Gary Grigsby’s WitE we see the ability for the PC to model the abstracts of combat. Two divisions fight, whereas before we’d compare a table, or maybe roll a dice, WitE abstracts out each squad.

So now granularity gets weird. We see the division scale but combat is resolved at the squad, maybe half a dozen troops. This would be impossible on paper, you simply couldn’t roll dice a few thousand times. (At least not while I’m waiting!)

FI02_03_ZF_Jun22-Jul11_41Behind the scenes the PC is able to do what it does well, math. But we, the user, are still limited by the scale of what we can see and manipulate. Controlling a division of squads on a map would be ridiculous, you couldn’t resolve what needed to happen.

Lets move away from our massive formation and start scaling down again. We have another class of games at the company or battalion level, games like Graviteam or Battlefront’s Combat Mission. Or paper games like Combat Commander, ASL, and GMT’s Panzer. Now we see individual soldiers doing soldier things. Physics enters the game, velocities, angles, penetration, weather. You can zoom right in and see the individual soldier. We’re about as granular as it gets now.

You could argue that we can go a step forward into First Person Shooters. It doesn’t get much more granular than one player-one soldier. But for our purposes I’ll stick with games where you’re in command of more than yourself.

I’ve been following a game called Ancient Armies lately, it’s in development by a gentleman who’s adding granularity to the individual formations and it’s really had me thinking. Instead of abstract blocks or groups, he breaks it into individuals as part of that group, just little dots, and lets them interact. It sure looks like an interesting system.

Could you model a divisions worth of combat right down to the man as in Combat Mission or Graviteam? I’ve seen people do it using the Total War Engine with some success, though the scale tends to be much denser. It’d be interesting to see, but is it really any different than our paper example with a chart and maybe some dice? Is it just a feeling we get as gamers that the PC is working hard so it must be realistic? Does it matter? Is it more fun to know that it’s modeled down to a squad level?

Devil in the Details (And the hot dogs)


One example would be a shortage of a particular anti-tank round. If in your game you somehow didn’t have enough 37mm AT rounds how do you model this? Do you just shave a minuscule percentage off the damage done? Or maybe when you resolve at a squad level our fictitious division suddenly runs out, and those same 37mm squads no longer have any ammo to shoot pixel-tanks. Now we’ve got an argument for that granularity of scale.

Now our data density is immense, have I optimized 37mm production as to maximize my squads effectiveness? Do you model this from bayonets all the way up to tanks? What about components? At a certain point it starts to become ridiculous as a game, but quite fascinating as a simulation. I’m sure someone out there wants to play Logistics Commander : The Eastern Front.

Whats interesting that as a simulation, the granularity matters. If I’m a professional modelling a system I want it to have as many variables as possible. I want every possible failure mode and divergent possibility rolled into one handy interface. Think of modelling stress in a steel beam, or a building. Data density is good.

Normandy1But a game is an entirely different animal. Is War in the East better than Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa because WitE models down to the squad? I don’t know, I find it interesting in both cases, but I think there’s more to a game than just getting the simulation right. How does a good interface show you all of this information without it getting lost? Graviteam has that problem, the interface kind of sucks. War in the East and DC:B also suffer from it, a wealth of information, but what’s worth studying and what’s not?

That probably separates a good game from a not as good one. If you can still play, but not as effectively, without digging into the details then I think you’ve got a good setup. But if you need to know one piece of data in some arcane table, well, that’s bad design. One good example is the Panzergruppe breakdowns in DC:B. I didn’t even know about them until halfway through the game, I did fine for the most part, but then I started doing a little better. Was it essential no? But it made me a better player to know it.

Pareto Strikes Back

I think Pareto’s Rule works well in our case. If I can play 80% of your game and only need to know 20% of the interface / data then we’re doing damn good. Knowing that remaining 80% of the interface and commands just makes me master that remaining 20% of your game. Look at a very complex game like Crusader Kings 2 or Europa Universalis, I can play and enjoy myself without digging into every single damned menu from the first moment. That’s pretty elegant really.

There’s also a rule in social media (and life in general) that your circle of friends is only 60 people. You just cannot get to know more than that on a close level. Could the same be true for unit densities in board games? Looking at the density of information and the games I like, yes. While I enjoy War in the East, I enjoy the smaller scenarios. The massive campaign is too much. The same goes for Flashpoint and Combat Mission. I like to know my units, it feels more personal.

All in all we can look at our successful wargames and see a pretty wild difference in granularity. The more popular ones all seem to have better interfaces, while still retaining a depth of data. But I think it’s also key that they approach that 60 unit level. Or, if they go over that, you can delegate. Stellaris does a good job with this by using sectors. I think more war games would work well with delegation while also allowing me to feel more like a commander and not a micro-manager.

What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments or ping at me on Twitter, @titaniumtrout.

Gamer, Author, Engineer, Dad.

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