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Home on the Range – Firepower in Chain of Command

z2Judging by the emails we have had on the subject, one of the real hot potatoes in WWII skirmish wargaming at the moment would seem to be the issue of weapon ranges. There would appear to be two camps: one which favours an abbreviated range for the sake of playability; the other which prefers realistic weapon ranges which cover the whole tabletop. So, where do we stand on this?

Firstly let me say that the idea of limiting weapons to firing at effective ranges is certainly a mechanism which has a place in rule design. It is time-consuming and rather silly to allow a battalion of infantry in the Napoleonic wars to fire its muskets at 400 yards when the chances are that in reality you’d get one round out of several hundred actually hitting the target. Far better, in that situation, to limit the firing range to a distance where fire becomes effective enough to have a significant effect. The question then, is at what range does infantry fire become worthwhile modelling, and how does that fit into our game.

This will largely be governed by the hoary old chestnut of ground scale. It may be very fashionable to abandon such issues as ground-scale and time-scale, although I am not sure why. Only by knowing what distances we are working with on the tabletop and what period of time each “turn” is meant to represent can the designer attempt to approximate what is actually possible in reality.

When designing Chain of Command we wanted to create a game which would work visually with 15mm, 20mm and 28mm figures when using inches and with 6mm and 10mm when using centimetres. We hit on the ground scale of 12” on the tabletop being 40 yards in reality. This actually makes a 15mm man 6’ high when using inches, and a 6mm man 6’ high when using centimetres, so very close to 1:1 scale, but still looks absolutely great with larger 28mm and 20mm figures in inches and 10mm.

So, if we focus on the inches option, out 6’ by 4’ wargames table is 240 yards by 160 yards, that’s just under 8 acres or four football pitches if you prefer. This maximum dimension of 240 yards is well within the effective range of any rifle or machine gun, and whilst some national battle drills suggested holding fire until the enemy were close – the British preferred a killing ground of 100 to 150 yards – others were encouraged to open fire at longer ranges. The Germans considered 800 yards to be effective range for the MG34 and MG42 and their riflemen would join in a fire fight at under 400 yards.

Now, there is a school of thought which suggests that if we allow our men to fire across the whole length of the table a stalemate will ensue with both sides bogged down at extreme range. It’s a seductive argument, but one which, I feel, ignores a couple of key factors. Firstly, many of us tend to use something called TERRAIN on our table. This breaks lines of sight and as a consequence tends to mean that weapons ranges are governed more by the old adage of “If I can see it, I can hit it”. The second factor being ignored, and I think this is more salient, is that if you are by chance on a battlefield which is pretty flat and open – say a particularly flat slice of desert (which weren’t THAT flat anyway) or a flat bit of Holland – then surely you are facing precisely the same problem that a subaltern commanding a platoon would have faced in reality. There is your problem, now solve it! Is this really the sort of reality that we wish to avoid? If so we may as well play Risk and forget tactical level skirmishes altogether.

But let’s not do that. Let’s stick with our flat bit of ground. This is the perfect opportunity to try some fire and movement. Put down fire with your LMG, drop smoke if you have it, advance your men by rushes, make the most of what cover is available. Because that is how men in that situation really did it. Will it work? Who knows, but I can assure you that when it does, and you have seen fire and movement in action, it’s a great connection with the reality of warfare.

Let’s take another example. I wrote a piece for Miniature Wargames in the current, August, edition which presented a scenario for Chain of Command but, as I said in the piece, will fit other rules which do the same job. I had an email from “Disgruntled of Basingstoke” who was very upset that he couldn’t play the game with his preferred set of rule. The scenario he said “doesn’t work”.

That was an interesting one, as the scenario was taken directly from a British Army 1944 Battle Drill manual. The game that played out was the solution presented by the rules as the text book way to drive off the beastly Hun from his woodland lair. On further discussion, it turned out that his 2” mortar did not have the range to put down smoke where it was needed, the section acting as the base of fire was too far away to do so, the Bren gun in a covering oblique position did not have the range to do its job. Ultimately, to get the scenario to work Disgruntled would have needed to shrink his table to about 24” square. Not the most attractive solution with 28mm figures.

All of which rather convinced me that abbreviating ranges for the sake of “playability” (whatever that is meant to mean) had the direct result of making real life tactics unworkable. For me that removal of reality from a game does more to remove “playability” than anything else. Yes, by having weapon ranges which can cover the whole table the rules are obliging me to seek covered avenues of approach. They are obliging me to consider the best fire and movement techniques that I can use. They are encouraging me to establish a base of fire and then manoeuvre off that. Why would the scouts at the top of this piece be advancing cautiously if they knew they were out of weapon range? In short, the rules are presenting me with an experience which is a plausible reflection of warfare, and as such the decisions I, as platoon commander, am faced with making are very close to what my real-life equivalent was faced with. And surely that is what WWII tactical level wargaming should be about.

So, if you’ve not guessed by now, we do firmly favour realistic weapons ranges as these provide the best possible representation of what the real soldiers on the ground had to face. Only when the real effect of firepower is modelled are we then obliged to look for tactics which can overcome that, and these, unsurprisingly, lead us to use the real tactics of the period.

POSTSCRIPT
Whilst posting my comments above I seem to have been writing at the same time as a gentleman in Sweden who blogs under the name of Anatoli. His piece is longer then my thoughts above, but I do feel it is worth reading in tandem. I do wonder if, at last, wargamers are reaching a point where generic 1980s rule models dressed up as anything the corporate end of the hobby wants them to be are going out of favour? I doubt it, but it is good to see opinions expressed so eloquently and thoughtfully. You can read them here: http://anatolisgameroom.blogspot.se/2013/08/historical-wargaming-and-realistic.html

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25 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    Superb, absolutely spot on, couldn’t agree more.

  2. John says:

    Clear, to the point, excellent. Shows what can be done to avoid fudges if the theoretical foundations are secure.

  3. I prefef realistic weapons ranges; in this way, it is my problem (and objetive) to use these weapons in a real way.
    Very interesting article, sir.

    I NEED THE RULEBOOK NOW!!!

  4. Benito says:

    Another outstanding piece showing the strength of your game design methodology.

  5. Jim Hale says:

    I’m also in favour of realistic ranges (and movement rates), if a set of rules has to fudge either of these for the sake of playability, then it didn’t get it right from the beginning.

    I suspect that players may have to become a bit more creative with their terrain… a flat table with a couple of hedges and trees isn’t really going to cut it with these rules I suspect.

    ?

  6. Ville Savin says:

    Good article (as always). Small scale historical wargaming (squad to company size) should be all about use of fire and maneuvering tactics while taking advantage of ground. It shouldn’t be about estimating (or pre-measuring!) that one’s squad in the open is 31″ away from enemy because their rifles have range of 30″ etc.

    No wonder why real life tactics won’t work that good with rules that have “fixed” weapon ranges as many times your basic riflemen can fire only once or twice at an enemy that is closing in because weapon ranges are very short compared to movement values. That kind of gaming might be fun in its own right but it’s not very historical nor realistic.

  7. Alexander says:

    Very interesting article Richard, just finished reading it – and funny how we both touched upon the same subject today. A funny anecdote which I touched upon on my blog, the weird WW2 game I mentioned is “Secrets of the third Reich” – and it’s a funny thing about it being written with greater realism than more recent platoon level WW2 games.

    The way I understand the authors of those rules did research on actual WW2 armor values, squad sizes, weapon abilities etc and wrote the game as a historical game, and only after that added the Weird elements such as zombies, mechas and strange weapon technologies. This meant that you could play (and there was an alternative free version called Berlin or Bust without the Weird stuff) the rules as a straight WW2 game and actually use proper tactics and have the right amount of detail and still be a fast paced game. The game had over 100 historical vehicle profiles for the UK/US/Soviet/Germany in the core rulebook which all included information about locomotion type, chassis size, armor class, speed class, crew, transport capacity, main guns, if it had a turret or not, whether it was open topped and what secondary armament said vehicle included.

    Weapon ranges for pretty much all small arms were unlimited (shotguns, pistols and SMG’s had limits), you had smoke and regular frag grenades, classifications of vehicles speed and armor that surpasses the level of detail of many contemporary WW2 skirmish games and a great damage chart so that it made sense from what flank and what part of a tank you were firing at or attacking with AT weapons. You could even knock out members of the crew and limit the abilities of the tank by having the now reduced crew decide what whether to drive or fire the main gun etc.

    The rules had an easy but nice mechanic for ranging in and adjusting mortar fire, allowed players to throw back hand grenades at the enemy, squads could opt to fire suppressing fire instead of direct fire at enemy units, go into overwatch if they were out of sight and didn’t have enemy units within their LoS etc. Surprisingly well written rules given the subject matter. The reason I stopped playing it was not because of bad rules but because of bad army lists and the way the game was played at a competitive level which didn’t really work out as many squad upgrades and weapon choices were “free” and people made power builds instead of interesting lists. At that time my group had no concept of playing unbalanced scenarios as it was our first game after having quit playing WH40k so we were still stuck in that particular mindset.

    As such I was just short of baffled at the (when compared to SottR) simplicity of Bolt Action which for all I know presents itself as a serious and proper WW2 game. Both games took an identical amount of time to play, granted that the BA game was a demo but we used a smaller than normal amount of troops.

    That is really interesting to me, I wonder if wargames are following the trend of computer and video games, where manufacturers feel the need to make the games easier and easier because they are afraid of players not having the intelligence or patience left to play something challenging – while the overwhelming amount of gamers are actually wanting to test their wits and like solving/overcoming problems.

  8. Nick says:

    Rich & Alex – Great thoughts and comments from both. Many thanks for sharing your insights.

    Personally I feel that much that is wrong with current rule writing stems from the advent of rules written by figure/model manufacturers. In my view the prime driver for the author has moved from writing a good set of accurate period rules to producing some thing glossy and simple which will support sales of merchandise. I do hope the days of manila rules churned out principally to sell figures are ending.

    I also firmly support Rich’s initiative to further the publication of rules written by “amateurs”. It seems that these days many sets of rules marketed by different companies are actually written by the same stable of writers. How can that be a good thing and how can that not kill innovation?

    Cheers

    Nick

  9. Marcus Wheeler says:

    I’d like to suport th argument for realistic ranges on the table from another perspective. A degre of abstraction is inevitable in attempting to translate real life activity to the table top, but i really struggle with scale issues. I find it very difficult to take a 28mm figure and say “it represents x soldiers” and can fire a weapon less far than it would appear able to throw a grenade. I think that is one of the reasons i prefer smaller scales as it is much easier to approach a 1:1 representation. As i said, inevitably there will be some sacrifices to get a playable game on the table, and who can ever hope to do a 1:1 Cannae or Kursk, but simply ignoring the scale aspect really grates on me. i suspect this is also why i have become more interested in games such as CoC, as i find it increasingly difficult to see a realistic representation of manouver warfare in 6mm (and why i am thinking of the Iran -Iraq War in 3mm s a future project).

  10. Big Rich says:

    Alexander

    A coincidence indeed! I must admit that I haven’t played any of the games you mention, so I can’t comment on them specifically. However, I do think it is a shame when all the emphasis is on the game and none on the history. My enjoyment of the hobby comes from the magical combination of figures, terrain, social gaming with friends and historical research. It is great when one is able to use a game as a window onto the past by using the same tactics as the men we read about and overcoming the same problems. If a game fails to allow the correct tactics to be used then I honestly thing it may well be a fun game, but it ain’t no wargame.

  11. Alan K says:

    And therein lies the reason I have been a fan of your rules! For me, if the rules don’t allow you to play historical scenarios and use the proper tactics then I might as well go and play an abstract boardgame…

  12. James says:

    Both the blog post and the linked post very interesting reading. From my point of view I find the aim to create rules which truly reflect the period most appealing but I have to be honest and say that is a fairly new point of view for me. Previously I haven’t considered such things and have largely skewed towards the bigger companies simply because they offer a “complete” package that a newbie can pick up and play without needing to do anything outside of reading there materials. I was pretty much set on flames of war until I saw the videos for CoC for example.

  13. Gary says:

    Richard, my Dad fought in WW2 and his descriptions about fighting in and around Caen are exactly how you cover it in CoC. I think this set of rules is the closest we are going to get to how those Heroes did it for real.
    I know i shall be very happy with CoC and looking forward to many great games ahead.
    Great work, many thanks.

  14. Tigerleiter says:

    Bolt Action will make you eat shit. You know nothing.

  15. Nick says:

    Well Tigerleiter, I for one am utterly convinced by your incisive and intelligent arguments coupled with a rapier like wit. Thank God some one of your intelligence has pitched in to show us the error of our ways……

  16. Big Rich says:

    That’s great news. I’d wager that will be an improvement on my wife’s cooking!

  17. Mike Whitaker says:

    Tigerleiter :
    Bolt Action will make you eat shit. You know nothing.

    Care to expand on that incisive argument?

  18. Roger Beatson says:

    Tigerleiter :
    Bolt Action will make you eat shit. You know nothing.

    mmmm I’ll have mine nutty with just a hint of corn.
    Seriously dude – are you like 5 years old. Go home troll.

  19. Ken says:

    If you like games where weapon range is the entire board, take a look at Force on Force by Ambush Alley Games published by Osprey. They have been out for quite awhile doing the same thing and very well. They are modern rules- don’t know if there’s a WW2 variant.

  20. Ralph says:

    Well, what do you know, he was right!
    Can anybody recommend a good mouthwash?

  21. Richard says:

    Alexander :
    That is really interesting to me, I wonder if wargames are following the trend of computer and video games, where manufacturers feel the need to make the games easier and easier because they are afraid of players not having the intelligence or patience left to play something challenging – while the overwhelming amount of gamers are actually wanting to test their wits and like solving/overcoming problems.

    Don’t forget many companies have a lot of people to answer to in the form of bean counters and share holders. They need to appeal to as large a market as possible, so the games are kept generic enough that the ‘casual’ and ‘competitive’ can both benefit from the ruleset. Unfortunately when you try to please everyone you often end up pleasing no one.

    If the business lies in shifting minis, then each edition completely rehashing the rules in order to force players to rebuild armies is a good idea.

  22. Sidney says:

    Excellent post Rich. I am, of course, biased, but the realistic ranges force the players to at least consider using historical tactics on the tabletop. You’re not forced to replicate the infantry training manuals of the day in planning your attack, but you quickly find out there was a reason why the General Staff directed so much attention to the dissemination of training manuals and undertaking exhaustive troop training in general.

  23. Lead Mountain says:

    Lardies
    Great article, games need to evolve through innovation as do gamers minds.

  1. August 10, 2013

    […] Continuing the build-up to the release of Chain of Command, today Richard Clarke discusses his philosophy on weapons ranges. […]

  2. May 29, 2016

    […] Continuing the build-up to the release of Chain of Command, today Richard Clarke discusses his philosophy on weapons ranges. […]

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