The Tactical Wargamer

The release of Tactical Game 3 in 1969 ushered in a new era of gaming which bridged a gap between miniatures and PC/console games. This blog will focus on ground warfare in the 20th Century and to the present, and the brief and ongoing history of commercial tactical games that depict conflicts in that era.
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Seeing The Future: Thoughts on Combat Results in Tactical Games

Michael Dorosh
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Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Stephen B. Patrick presented some detailed thoughts on Combat Results Tables (CRT) in the February 1972 issue of Moves magazine that are interesting not only in their ability to briefly summarize their history but in exploring ongoing issues as today's game designers - both board and computer - continue the quest to best marry playability and realism in a single vehicle. I presented some thoughts on the subject in November 2008 on another site, which I'm presenting here in revised form. ("Professor Professorson" just found a link to the entire archive of back issues, incidentally, which Greg Costikyan uploaded to - read the details here.)

At the time the article in Moves was written, wargaming at the tactical scale in board games was in its infancy though miniatures rules had been promoted by pioneers in the hobby such as Jack Scruby in the U.S. and Charles Grant in the U.K. for many years. While Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz contained many innovative concepts compared to the standard fare since board wargames first appeared on the market in 1958, such as isomorphic mapboards and a multiple scenario format, the method in which the game produced combat results remained unremarkable. When SPI began producing tactical games - including Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-15, and Grunt, set in Vietnam, the CRT was similarly - speaking purely from hindsight - uninspired.

James F. Dunnigan defines a CRT in the 3rd Edition of his Wargames Handbook as

A Probability Table that shows the possible results of all combats allowed within a particular game. The greater the ratio of attacker to defender strength, the higher the chance of success. Because so many things can go wrong during the combat itself, a die or other random-number generator is used to determine the actual result. These tables are usually calculated based on what information is available on actual historical losses.

Stephen Patrick noted the trend in games in the late 1960s and into the new decade of the '70s was to simply re-use CRTs from game to game. In his article in February 1972 he identified correctly "the touchstones of authenticity and playability" and how the two concepts inter-related:

One can start with full authenticity and back off far enough to gain playability, or start with a purely playable system and work toward realism by adding the elements of historicity to give the right flavor. There will be a gray area where the playable takes on the flavor of war and where the war becomes playable. Moreover, this point will differ depending on the point of origin.

He then contrasted the Avalon Hill approach to games with the SPI approach; he contended that Avalon Hill's "playability" perspective simply produced games with similar rules for every game while SPI produced more historical games with tailor made rules sets. As an example of Avalon Hill's devotion to playability, he cited their CRT, which was a standard in their line of games to that date:

A - Attacker back 2
D - Defender back 2
Elim - Eliminated

When Strategy & Tactics began to publish tactical games (and it produced tactical titles outside of the "modern" genre on which I focus my attention), they similarly retained a common CRT with simple results in the platoon and company level games of the time:

"No result"

Patrick's thesis was that this "tactical Combat Results Table is the most archaic element in S&T's bag of tricks - the most playable/non-realistic element currently in use."

What Does It Mean?

Simply put, the CRT delineates the results of combat, and Patrick suggested that any action in which two opposing forces meet can result one of a limited number of results at the end of a fixed period of time.

* Melee (both forces remain locked in battle)
* Attacker repelled
* Defender repelled in good order
* Defender routed

Patrick noted that there were other possibilities; a pyhrric victory in which the attacker was severely damaged in the battle, for example. Tertiary considerations were fatigue levels, whether an attack was an initial action, a continuation of a previous attack, or the end of a battle. His main question, however, was how to transpose the basic CRT results to a game such that it adequately represented the history being portrayed.

The easiest result to simulate, according to Patrick, was the "no result", and a "dispersed" unit he felt was better described as "shaken" - temporarily unable to fight. He felt "eliminated" was draconian, as

...few battles result in an entire unit being destroyed to a man in a given time period, particularly during the brief period of time portrayed in the tactical games. Thus, there must simultaneously be some way to reflect the decline in strength from being in the thick of it and, at the same time, to get units off the board. After all, pasteboard pieces don't really have morale or take losses, so something must be injected to bring the authentic within the realm of playable. The 1914 solution of stepped units is obviously the best way to reflect casualties short of going the bookkeeping routes. But even (this) is viewed with displeasure by some (and) requires the injection of a whole set of pieces. The object here is to consider the requirements of a Combat Results Table which can be inserted in any game without actually having to totally revamp the rules.

Another solution was to add an increased dispersion rule, whereby a second retreat caused elimination, and a third option discussed by Patrick was to consider two retreat possibilities - retreat and rout - and have routed units equate to eliminated for purposes of the game.

Patrick also talked about using different CRT for different phases of the battle - for example during the initial phase of a battle when morale of an attacker was high, and again when units were tired during the last phase of a battle. In effect, he felt a battle might need three separate CRT to adequately model the distinct phases of a battle. He felt that not only fatigue, but fanaticism and the effects of good training would make themselves felt in the latter phases of a battle and should be reflected in the game mechanics.

Theory and Practice: Soldiers

Tellingly, in Moves issue 4, in August 1972, detailed articles on the development of the game discuss the history of the development of infantry and artillery, show images of the different drafts of the map, talk about rules development and scenario drafts, but have no discussion of the CRT. It's not known if a non-standard CRT was ever even contemplated.

Predicting the Future

Patrick ended his article with the following:

Returning to the real life situation...if the research is good (the result) should be a Combat Results Table which can complement the accuracy of the rest of the rules in evoking the period in question. The obvious point, though, is that the Combat Results Table now becomes an integral part of game design, rather than a handy plug-in section, such as the initial description of the pieces and the game map, and it is as important to make the Combat Results Table valid as it is to calculate the Attack Strength of a crossbow.

Logical Outgrowths

CRT development stagnated in tactical games at the squad and platoon level; two years later,Tank! still had simple odd-ratios driving the results of the CRT, though there were now panic results. Game development was focusing on whether play should be simultaneous movement or sequential and the CRT was still being viewed, perhaps, as simply a given.

When man-to-man games like Sniper! and Patrol came along, however, their very nature caused further development of the CRT as there were a greater number of weapons systems in play.

Which brings us to John Hill. He viewed the possible combat results in Squad Leader as still a fairly simple proposition. Despite the fact he was contemplating what would be an enormously ambitious and complicated game system in which multiple weapons systems would interact, he argued that it didn't matter if a squad of ten men were machine-gunned in the open, shelled moving through woods, pelted in their foxholes with grenades or burned out of a bunker with a flamethrower, the results would be the same - they would be killed, they would suffer some form of morale loss, or there would be no appreciable impact at all. "Design for Effect" became the mantra for Squad Leader's development, and was used to explain away inconsistencies in the design, wherein European streets became 80 metre wide boulevards, and physically fit men could only move 160 metres in two minutes. He simply "factored in" grenades as part of "close combat" and "point blank fire" and did away with the need for special rules or counters for them altogether.

PC Games

The first Combat Mission titles remained partially faithful to the notion that players wanted to see CRT results; while there were no visible dice rolls or interventions of fate, there was lip service made to such things as "fanaticism", and moreover, firepower stats were presented in unit information screens, and was available in the game via mouseclick during the orders phase, as was cover stats for infantry units, morale and fatigue levels (though not necessarily the explicit effects of same), as well as detailed armour value for AFVs, general penetration capabilities of weapons, blast values for artillery, etc.

Firepower and cover stats were available right in the main game space of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin.

While there was no longer a CRT for the player to refer to, enterprising players could recreate specific battlefield phenomena in the editor to determine probabilities - if he was curious how often a specific tank type would bog in a particular type of terrain and weather conditions, he could create a sample scenario and run it repeatedly until he had a sample to estimate from. Websites and collections of forum postings with links to just "research" have taken the place of the CRT in some cases. A "Player's Guide" was released for Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin with tables of unit stats, which players could look up. The handbook was not billed as a "scenario designer's guide" - though it did contain interviews with scenario authors as an appendix and the data was likely aimed as much at them as players.

Hidden Outcomes and the Deletion of the CRT:

Given everything that was said in 1972 about the importance of having a valid CRT, there seems to be a trend in video games to keeping game routines hidden from the gamers who play them. The obvious desire is for "realism" and the common argument is that real life commanders "don't count firepower factors." Nonetheless, the player has to have a way to relate to the game, which has to use mathematical equations and logarithms to simulate results. Having access to the data increases understanding of how the data works - and the more "realistic" the simulation, the less likely the player is to have access to the data. In Panzer Command, for example (based on the Panzer War miniature rules), players have the ability to modify unit data if it doesn't fit their perceptions of reality, though the data isn't easily accessible inside the game (altering it is done via editable "xml" files - text documents which are loaded into the "back end" before the game is started). In the second generation Combat Mission game engine, where small arms and tank fire is ostensibly tracked by a real world physics engine, there is very little way for players to anticipate "hit chances" or probabilities beyond very general assumptions regarding terrain and situation - which is exactly what the developers intended. They would argue "CRTs" are a wargame construct, and that their wargame should be devoid of them!

My questions to you:
Patrick starts his proposition with "if the research is good". How much is actually "knowable" about what goes on at the tactical level, that would justify things like firepower factors or combat results to begin with? And must the designer choose between accurately modeling the proceedings (tracking every exchange of gunfire with precision) or the outcomes (10-25% killed in every average engagement, 25-50% wounded)?

This screenshot of Tigers Unleashed was unveiled on another gaming site. Do wargames really have to have hexes and counters in order for players to be able to reasonably access detailed data about their own troops' capabilities?

Addendum: in the comments to my original article, James Lowry noted that Anzio's CRT permitted step-reduction results as early as 1969. Advanced Squad Leader added a form of step-loss results to the CRT as well, an extension of a game function started in the original SL game series.
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