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Wargame Rules Design: The "Environment" Approach

This article presents a method for the sequencing of actions and reactions on the wargames table that is not commonly used, but which provides some interesting effects. I like to call this design approach the "environment" design, as contrasted with traditional rules sets using what I term the "actor" design. These names come from the basic difference in the perspective from which the action of a battle is seen on the tabletop.

In a typical wargame, each unit makes an action or actions at some point (or points) within the turn sequence. The results of this action - the reactions of other units - are immediately portrayed. I fire unit A at unit B, and I immediately see how many casualties are suffered by unit B, and whether it breaks and runs or not. In an environment game design, the actions taken by the unit are established as taking place - that is, as altering the battlefield environment - but the reactions to those actions are not determined until later.

This is done with a sequencing mechanism in which each unit's immediate environment is reported, and their reactions are then determined. Essentially, we go around the table in an ordered sequence - most of my games that use this design check each unit once per turn, on the basis of their proximity to the commander's figure - and evaluate the reaction of the unit to its immediate situation.

It is easiest to understand this difference if we use an example.

Let's say that I have a German machine-gun unit defending a section of trench on the Western Front during World War I. It has some 77mm field guns firing in support. The section of trench is being assaulted by a pair of British infantry units. (Obviously, this would represent only a small part of the wargames table.)

In a traditional wargame, the units would be moved according to some sequence:

Let's say that in this game the British go first, having the initiative, and the Germans go second. Thus, we have the two British units jump up out of their trenches and advance into no-man's land. Now, it's the German's turn. The 77mm battery opens up, "shooting" one of the British units, and then the MGs fire, shooting the other one. The effects of fire would be evaluated immediately: first for the 77mm guns, when they fire, and then for the MGs, when they fire.

Immediately, we have a distortion: the 77mm HE shells will effect everybody within their blast radius, regardless of how many or few units they represent. The same is true of our machineguns: during WWI, machineguns simply sprayed bullets over a section of the landscape known to contain enemy troops, and they affected whoever fell within that arc of fire.

This is not a difficult problem to fix in traditional rules: we allow weapons such as the 77mm guns firing indirectly to do so at an earlier phase in the turn, and to have multiple targets. Similarly, we allow the MG to have multiple targets. (Note that indirect HE fire is one area where some commercial games do use an "environment"-type approach.) We can even wait until both units have fired before evaluating morale, since they would be suffering from the HE and the machinegun fire simultaneously.

An environment game design could provide a much cleaner, simpler mechanism for dealing with this, however. To take the same example, we would first evaluate the British units. They have a fairly happy environment, because they are safe in a trench and not taking any fire. The only part of their "environment" that will cause them trouble is the fact that they just got an order to go over the top. Nonetheless, they will obey the order (which is their reaction to this particular "environment" in our terms.) The units on the tabletop are moved out of their trenches and a few inches into no-man's land.

Now for the Germans: the 77mm guns are safely in their own trenches some distance behind the front lines, and are not themselves taking any fire. They have been given an order to fire HE shells at coordinates coming to them from their forward spotters, which coincide with the location of the advancing British units. They have no reason not to obey the order, so the HE fire begins. This is represented on the tabletop as a "sheaf" that covers a certain area of the table. (In my WWI games, we use cotton balls in the appropriate colors to mark the location of the sheaf, but the type of marker is just a detail.)

Note that even though the British units are underneath the sheaf, we do not determine the effects of the fire on them at this time. All we have done is establish the change made to the battlefield environment when the 77mm guns opened up.

Next, we evaluate the German machine-guns. They are safe in their trench, and they are not taking any fire, but they do see the British units hop up out of the trench opposite, which presents them with a threat. Their response to this would probably be to open fire. We will then establish an arc of fire covered by the MG unit on the tabletop. Again, even though the British units both happen to be within this arc of fire, we do not yet evaluate its effect on them.

We go off and perform the same set of evaluations for all the other units in the game, and then come back to our example units on the following turn. The British units are now in a much more hostile situation: their local environment includes a standing order to advance, but they are now exposed in no-man's land, within the blast radius of 77mm HE, and within the arc of fire of a set of German machine-guns. A typical response would be to suffer a large number of casualties, and possibly stop advancing, despite orders - the unit would be pinned. (Additionally, if it has received new orders, it may well ignore them - unless they happen to be an order to fall back!)

If the units do advance, when we next evaluate the German units, the artillery will probably keep on firing according to orders, since they are not under any particular threat, but the machine-gunners might decide to cease firing and fall back instead of continuing to follow orders and defend the trench.

The trick here is all in the sequencing: because we don't see the results of unit's actions until after we have had to issue orders to all of our units, we have a realistic time-lag between the issuing of orders and seeing their results. Orders are issued before we evaluate each unit, as we go around the table. The battlefield action is perceived from the view-point not of a soldier advancing across no-man's land, or the machine-gunner firing at him (the "actor" in our terms), but from the perspective of the commander, who only hears after-the-fact that the advance failed or suceeded with some number of casualties as the result of machine-gun and HE fire. In the meantime, other orders will have been issued to other units, which might not be the ones we would have given if we'd already known the results of other actions.

It is fairly obvious that this type of game design fits neatly into a Western Front WWI game, because of the nature of the battlefield weapons (which performed lots of 'area' fire) and because the commanding generals were often far behind the front. It does not necessarily fit equally well with other periods: think of a tactical level WWII game in which players are firing anti-tank rounds - the effect of fire actually is seen immediately! Arguably, an "evironmental" design would fit well into some periods more commonly gamed than the Western Front in WWI, however.

Think about any horse & musket period where unaimed volley-fire was the norm. You couldn't see through the smoke, and you weren't bothered with "aiming" your shots at any other soldiers: you were really just covering an area full of the enemy with a wall of lead. Now, some units will certainly generate more deadly walls of lead than others (because they are better disciplined, faster, etc.) but this does fit well into an environment game design. The effects of an ongoing firefight might sometimes be immediately evident to the participants, but generally would not be instantly evident to a higher-level commander beyond the immediate vicinity. Even the direct-fire artillery of the horse & musket period could be fairly well represented in this fashion: one of the problems with massed batteries was seeing the fall of shot through the smoke.

At the beginning of the battle, generals were very careful to site their batteries and deploy their troops. They concerned themselves with "avenues of approach" and "fields of fire" as they deployed and issued initial orders. Once the battle started, however, the general's role became more passive: they received reports, tried to understand the situation through the smoke and chaos, and then to issue orders influencing the course of events. They essentially had the job of managing the chaos. This experience is well-simulated using the "environment" design, because of the built-in time lag between the players issuing orders, and seeing the results of those orders. And it manages to portray this lag in a very clean fashion: much simpler than having courier figures run around the table with messages.

There is a strange effect on the way games "feel" to the players, however. Wargamers expect to see the immediate effect of their actions, because they are used to having the tabletop represent the flow of action as perceived by the tactical units - the "actors". In an environment game, this immediate gratification disappears: I order my troops to fire, and I may not find out if they did well or poorly for some time. Players may not be comfortable with this at first.

In essence, the tabletop has become a map of the action that is closer to the way it would be perceived by a higher-level general. The general doesn't ever get the immediate gratification of seeing the effect of any of his orders, unless they concern troops in his immediate vicinity (and, due to smoke and other 'fog of war' factors, maybe not even then). He gets second-hand reports written down hastily by his subordinates, or passed by word-of-mouth.

If our rules are intended to allow players to simulate the experience of higher-level officers, then the environment approach may provide a more authentic experience of battle. Obviously, this mechanism does not apply to all periods or levels of representation, but it does give us a useful way to represent some very common periods and levels of play, and it certainly helps to provide that feeling of having to "manage the chaos."

I have written several sets of rules based on this type of design, for WWI Western Front and for various tricorne periods, and it has provided some interesting games. If you are the sort of wargamer who likes to tinker with your rules, give it a try - you may find that you like it, once you get used to it.

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