Games for Commanders

Pub Battles -Total War

I taught a group of high school kids to play Brandywine last night.  Upon seeing it, one of them immediately asked, “Do you have Total War Shogun?”  Very interesting that he made this connection.  Total War Shogun was one of our source inspirations for this design.  In many ways, Pub Battles is like the board game form of Total War.  I thought it would be great to compare and contrast the two.


My Experience

I had the original Total War Shogun when it first came out.  I have Total War Rome and Total War Napoleon.  I don’t have the latest editions.


Let’s start with the similarities


Army Commander Perspective

Who are you in the game? A soldier?  Pilot?  God, you control everything and everybody at the same time?  Both of these games clearly cast you as the Army Commander.  This is one of the coolest things about Total War.  You can easily imagine yourself on the field, with your army, in a battle.  You can’t control each individual soldier.  Just like a commander, you can control units or groups of men.  Total War does this in real time with 3D animation.  It actually looks and feels like you are there!  Amazing.

There is a contradiction here though. If your view is set at ground level, where you the commander is, you can’t really see much.  The troops and terrain blocks your view.  What is the point of having 3D animation of the entire battle in real time if you can’t see it?  So Total War allows you to rise up above the ground and ‘float’ so that you can see.  You can also then ‘fly’ around the field so that you can view the entire battle from any angle.  This is fun to do but obviously real army commanders can’t do this so it kind of blows the reality factor.

In this way, Pub Battles has the reality edge. As a commander, you can’t really see much of the battle from your command tent.  So in Pub Battles, you mark positions on a commander’s map with Kriegspiel style blocks.  Not hundreds of pieces for every tiny unit like many wargames do.  Just about 10-20 of the bigger formations.  The size of formations that the army commanders really dealt with.

Does this still result in an unrealistic God type view? In a way.  Unless you are playing an optional Umpired game.  Then players are only marking where they ‘think’ everybody is.  Not necessarily their true location.

Either way, both games do a pretty good job of putting players in the army commander’s chair.


Battlefield Overview

I love the Total War look!  It is amazing.

 

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Hills, woods, streams, long rectangular formations of troops.  Perfect!!

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How can a board game compete with that?!  Actually, Pub Battles does a pretty good job:

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See the resemblance?  True.  Pub Battles doesn’t have sun light, skies, weather and 3D details but it does a great job of capturing the look and feel of the battle field.  Especially when we compare this to the standard wargame representation:

Brandywine hexes

I rest my case.


No hexes or Areas

This is one of my pet peeves. Real commanders didn’t count hexes.  They do draw areas on a map to some extent.  I love how Total War breaks out of this standard game convention.  Your units just move like they do in real life.  No turns either!  The magic of computers allows for real time play.  Perfect.  You can pause.  You can speed up and slow down the time scale.  This makes sense.  Who wants to just sit there for 2 hours during a slow part of the battle?

It is kind of hard for a board game to pull off real time play without turns unless you have a big team of Umpires working full time. Pub Battles does drop the hexes and areas.  This simplifies play in many ways.  It also feels very much like Total War.  Your units just move.  It feels very natural.  You can easily imagine your forces advancing and clashing with the enemy across the battlefield.


Terrain

I’m not sure how to put this into words but somehow, the terrain in Pub Battles feels very much like Total War. The Brandywine map reminds me of the river crossing battles in Shogun.  You can only cross at a few points.  It is hard to do.  It usually takes several attempts. Once you get across, the defenders run for the hills and the woods.  The woods hide your troops and protect them from missile attack.  (artillery)

The terrain effects on combat feel very intuitive and very much like Total War. The defenders have an advantage on high ground or in the woods.  With some luck, you can still win.  You are probably going to need more troops though.


Emersion into the period

I love how Total War draws you into the setting. The music, battle field sounds of both weapons and men shouting, uniforms and flags.  It sucks you in and makes you feel like you are there.  It is easy to imagine the times and what it must have felt like.  Re-living history.

Pub Battles does this too! The map and the components draw you in.  They look period.  It is easy to imagine yourself at a small wooden table,  with a candle, in a leaky command tent.  Officers and messengers racing in and out.  Musket fire in the distance.  The maps look period.  They feel period too!  Printed on real canvas.

We played a game a few weeks ago with real written orders. These are an optional.  I had some left over, scrap parchment paper so we wrote them on that.  Hmmmmm…..  You know, I have an old feather, quill pen and an ink bottle down stairs.  Yep, let’s break that out too!  Very fun.  These little details trigger your imagination and draw you in.  I can almost smell the black powder smoke.


Timing

The “I-Go-You-Go” turn system in board games is static and predictable. Total War solves this with the magic of computers in ‘real time’.  What can Pub Battles do in a board game format?  It actually pulls off this same effect remarkably well with a chit pull system.

Your army in Pub Battles is broken down into Commands. Each Command has a chit.  The Commands move randomly as you pull their chits from a cup.  This makes the battle field chaotic and unpredictable;  much like the real thing and much like Total War.

As a result, both of these games feel very similar. Battle field timing becomes crucial.  Gaps and openings appear in the lines as your forces move around.  If you can hit the right spot at the right time you can trigger a major melt down in your enemies army.  You need to have people in reserve ready to exploit these in follow up attacks as well.


Fighting

The fighting feels very similar in both games. To attack, your pieces lurch forward, and crash into the enemy lines.  After that, it is mostly out of your hands.  Your job as the Commander is to decide where and when your forces attack.  What happens next?  Both sides suffer to various degrees.  One side comes out on top.  The loser shatters and runs away in mess.

In Pub Battles players have a little more control and influence in the fight. Somebody has to resolve it right?  In a way, I kind of like this better.  Instead of just watching the computer play the game and have all the fun, the players get to do it.

After both players fire and take losses, they have to decide to retreat OR stay for another round.  The defender chooses first.  The fight continues until 1 side backs down and runs or is destroyed.  This results in a tense battle of wills.  How bad do you want to win?  Do you need to hold this ground at all costs or is it more important to preserve your force?  Every round is an agonizing decision based on a constantly changing situation.

This does start to put the player into a lower level officer’s role. It is more fun to play.  Total War is more fun to watch.  Both feel very similar in approach and result.  What you can’t see in 3D graphics, your mind imagines in Pub Battles when you are rolling for combat.  Which one is better?  I don’t know.  I like them both.


Unit Status

In Total War, your units start out in neat little rectangles. Everybody lined up in perfect little rows.  After a fight, these perfect geometric shapes quickly devolve into a messy, sprawling mob.  Mobs don’t fight very well.  Maybe they won the last round but if another enemy unit hits them like that, they will easily rout.

Pub Battles operates much the same way. Your pieces start out ‘fresh’.  If they are hit in combat or retreat, they are flipped to their ‘spent’ side.  This leaves them vulnerable to destruction.  Just like Total War, they can recover to ‘fresh’ with a little time.  How much time?  Well 1 turn but here is the problem:  Only pieces that do not move can Rally.

This often leads to gut wrenching decisions. What do you want to do?  Do you want to turn around and rush to fill that critical gap in the line OR do you want to Rally back to fresh status.  You can’t do both.

Just like in Total War, a key strategy can be to hit the enemy hard. Disrupt their forces.  Then hit them again with fresh troops.  With good timing you can shatter the enemy and send most of his army to the dead pile.

Your artillery can be a very important part of this equation. Just like in Total War, your artillery can fire at the enemy from afar.  Artillery can’t kill them but it can flip them to ‘spent’ and even make them retreat.  Now you send in the cavalry charge!  Total War players will feel very much at home.


Differences: Total War & Pub Battles


Those were the similarities. Now let’s look at how they are different.


Advantages: Total War


No Rules

Who likes to figure out 100 page rule books before you can play? Pub Battles does pretty good.  Most of the core rules fit all on 1 page.  Amazing for a board game.  Still, wouldn’t you prefer no rules?

You can almost just start playing Total War and figure it out as you go. It has gotten a little more complex since its beginning.  It has tutorials that walk you through step by step how to play;  while you are playing!!  What could be better than that?  I think there are rules you can look things up later as you progress to campaign play.  Still, I love the way you can just get started with no rules.  That’s ideal.


Sound

Wow. When done right, the music score on computer games is just incredible.  Talk about drama and emersion.  I still remember the haunting music from the original Shogun.  Thunder.  Rain.  Clashing steel when the fighting starts.  Absolutely love it.  No board game can compete here.


Animation

It may be a little cheesy at times but still. Nothing quite beats seeing the panoramic view of the entire battle field.  Add to that, in real time!  It’s almost like watching a movie!  Drums.  Musket fire.  Fighting.  Casualties dropping.  Very exciting to watch.  You can also save ‘films’ of your greatest victories for posterity to view later.  Awesome.  The quality gets better with every edition also.


AI and online play

Ok, so you want to play a game but you don’t have an opponent. No problem.  Play the AI.  It’s not ideal but you can still have a good battle anytime you want.  They have online options here too against live players but I’ve never tried it.

Another great thing that is hard to argue with on a computer platform is the convenience. I don’t need a huge table.  I don’t have to worry about leaving it set up and the cat or the kids eating the pieces.  I can save it at anytime and resume whenever I want.  That is a tough combination to beat.  Especially with today’s busy life styles.


Advantages: Pub Battles


 

Tactile

Ok, it doesn’t have sound or 3D graphics but boy does Pub Battles have it when it comes to feel. The map is simply incredible.  The look, the texture.  There is something very satisfying about holding and piece and just moving it with your actual hand.  No mice or pointers.  No scrolling or Zooming.  No keyboard shortcuts to memorize or program.  What a relief.

There is something magical about a real map and real pieces. Real dice rolling.  I feel much more connected to the game and the actual events.  No matter how good the graphics, nothing quite beats being able to sit back in your chair and just take in the whole map at once.  You can ‘zoom in’ with your own eyes to any area of interest instantly.

No matter how digitalized our lives become, we are still innately human. Somehow we still connect better with physical objects you can touch, feel and hold.


Player Interaction

AI is convenient. True but it is also…..  unsatisfying.  So Pub Battles can be more of a hassle because you have to find live players.  This turns out to be a blessing in disguise.  It forces you to be social and interact with a live person.  A live opponent can be so much more challenging and rewarding.  Win or lose.  It can take a little work at first to find the right person that blends well with your personality and skill level.  It is worth the effort.

With most wargames, finding an opponent is nearly impossible because the rules are so complex. Who has time to figure out a 30-100 page rule book first?  Pub Battles makes this pretty easy with 1 page rules.  True, you can’t ‘save’ the game but you don’t need to.  It only takes 1 hour to play.

The best gaming experiences I’ve ever had were with live players. Not a computer.


Command

The army commander can’t run around on the battle field and personally issue orders to every unit anytime he wants to. This is one area of Total War that disappointed me some.  There is no command structure.  You should have to order your corps or wing commanders and then they move their troops.

Pub Battles simulates this better with their Commands system. This is how real armies moved.  Each ‘command’ has a HQ.  You don’t like the random order you got pulled to move?  You can influence this with your HQ.  Is there a gap in the enemy line?  Do you want to hit them before they can close it?  If they get picked to move 1st, your HQ can roll to jump ahead of them!

Sometimes you want to move last. Maybe I am withdrawing but I want to delay the enemy.  I want him to move first so that my forces block him and slow him down.  Then I want to move to pull away and fall back without having to fight.  What if I get picked to move first?  I can use my HQ to delay this move.


Playing Out

This sounds trivial but it is really cool. Pub Battles is made to be ‘played out’.  The map is pretty compact.  It fits on a small table and its waterproof.  We’ve played this out a number of times and it really is a kick:  at the library, in a bar, on an outside café table on main street downtown.  It is fun to play outside and about.

A big part of what makes this work, is that it looks really cool. It is impressive, not geeky.  You could use it as an icebreaker if you wanted.  Most people find it interesting and curious. Even girls!  Or you could just ignore them and play.  I can’t say that about most other games.  That is refreshing.


 

Conclusion


So which one is better?  I don’t know.  Very tough call.  I like them both.  What do you think?  Leave a comment below!

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