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An Unclear Game is Good

We’ve gotten some ‘complaints’ that the map for Marengo is unclear.  It occurs to me that this is by design and that it is a good thing.  What?!

This is a great illustration of the different philosophical approach of Kriegsspiel vs modern wargames.  Yes, we want the map to be unclear.  To some extent, we want the rules to be unclear.  This is by design and we love it.  

“I can’t tell where the streams are.  Which lines are they?”

” I can’t see where the roads are.  Some of them fade out.  Some of them look like they don’t connect.”

“Roads approach this river from both sides but there is no bridge or ferry symbol.  Is there a crossing here?”

“These hatch marks for the Hills fade in and out.  They don’t connect to anything.  There are multiple little ones together.  Is this all one slope are a series of small ones?”

“What do these little dots mean?  Some kind of scrub vegetation?  What does it do?  The rules don’t say.” 

“Why do these roads look different than those ones?”

These are common questions with Pub Battles.  No, we are not going to answer all of these in mind numbing detail with a 100 page, fine print rule book.  Yes, that is what has commonly been done in our industry.  That doesn’t mean this is the correct or best thing to do.  I’ll argue that it is wrong or at least that there are other ways.

The map for our Marengo game is REAL.  It is really cool from a historical perspective to play the game on a real French map of the period.  It is also more accurate and realistic.  It is messy.  Yes, it raises all those questions above and more.

As players, you may spend some time looking carefully at the map and trying to figure out what all this is and how it should impact the game.  Guess what?  You are spending time doing things that the real commanders did.  You are learning and developing skills that real commanders had.  You are learning to think like a real commander in a real battle.  


What would you spend your time doing in a traditional wargame?  Analyzing hexes, counting MPs and totaling odds for CRTs?  What skills are you learning?  Mechanical gaming skills for a certain type of game.

So if the rules don’t say anything, how do you decide what the map means?  You analyze it and discuss it with your opponent.  I am spending my time thinking about history.  What would have happened? How did things work?  If a division came across terrain in the real world like this, what would they do?  I am spending my time discussing military history and tactics with a friend.  That IS our hobby.  That IS fun.  I’m spending time with a friend discussing and learning about what we both love:  Military History / Science and command.    

There is a  road on both sides of the river but no bridge, ford or ferry symbol.  What do we do?  Well, apply a little logic.  Why would they build a road that approaches both sides of the river, at the same point, only to dead-end into the river and just stop?  That doesn’t make much sense.  Most likely, there is some kind of crossing there but it wasn’t put on the map.  Why?  Because it is the real world and it’s not perfect. Do you ever think that happens in real war with real maps and real commanders?  Do you ever think something like this has come up and messed up a whole operation?  All the time.  The military even has an affectionate term for it.  It’s called:  SNAFU.   

Maybe they forgot to draw it on the map.  Maybe the ink didn’t stick there when the map was printed.  Maybe high water recently washed out the bridge, so there is no crossing there right now.  Who knows?  Make a decision and go with it.  What if you disagree with your opponent on how to interpret the map?  That ruins the game!  How do you resolve it?

Flip a coin.  Ask an innocent bystander to make a ruling for you.  Does it really matter?

Why are you playing the game?  Are you playing to learn about history, learn about the time period, learn about command, spend time having fun with people that share your same interests?  Isn’t trying to figure out what the map means doing that?  I’d argue that doesn’t ruin the game.  That IS the game. 

Are you playing a game to competitively ‘beat’ somebody and claim some kind of superior intellect or skill?  I could argue that THIS ruins the game.  100 page, fine print rule books ruin the game.  How much has our hobby been damaged by this type of thinking and approach?

What has higher sales?  The average wargame that rolls off the line or Dungeons & Dragons?  Guess what?  Do you know what the original Kriegsspiel was like?  It was a lot more like D&D.  What if wargaming was more like D&D?  Would our hobby grow and be stronger?  More accessible to new comers?  

No bridge was depicted on the map.  Several players are in disagreement on how that should be interpreted.  What would happen in D&D?  The Dungeon Master would set a percentage and roll a die.  There’s the answer.  In Kriegsspiel an Umpire would do the same thing.  If you don’t have an Umpire in a Pub Battles game, roll a die.  

Guess what?  The best REAL training by military officers are Command Post Exercises.  These are run like Kriegsspiel.  Like D&D.  It’s not about counting hexes, calculating odds on CRTs and looking up mods on charts.  It’s about reading maps, teamwork, communication through limited written orders and reports with timing delays and hidden intel.  What does that little dot on the map mean?  Who knows but you have 3 min to make a decision and get your next order out.

Is Pub Battles unclear?  Yes.  The maps are a bit unclear.  The rules are a bit unclear.  They are that way by design.  Bad rules are 100% clear.  Our goal is NOT to answer any possible question, any person could possibly ever have.  That results in bloated rule books to games  that never get played.  

Our goal for rules are to be short, concise and easy to reference.  Our goal is that they should answer most questions that most people need;  not explain everything.  

Our goal for wargames is to push them more in the direction of D&D, Kriegsspiel and Command Post Exercises;   To make them more about communication, teamwork and leadership.  I believe this will make wargaming both more fun and realistic.  I also think this can greatly expand our industry and hobby.    

One final point.  I don’t mean to slam all traditional hex & counter, CRT wargames.  I like them too.  I play them.  I grew up on them.  There are many great ones that do many great things.  Don’t get me wrong.  

I’m just trying to point out that there is another path, and that other path has many great virtues as well.  I also think that in our industry, this other path is greatly undeveloped and under-represented.  



12 thoughts on “An Unclear Game is Good

  1. I would favor a clearer map, but I get your point and I agree. I drew over the rivers with a blue ballpoint pen. Guess what? It looks great, I modified it to please me. Others can leave it as is, if they choose. It’s all good.

    I also consulted the forums on Board Game Geek with my rules questions. Pub Battles is a relatively new system on the market. Once I got my head around the rules and got the few clarifications I needed, I was good to go. I don’t even look at the rules anymore. They’re simple and common sense intuitive. I know them by heart.
    I fight the battle, not the system.

  2. Thank god someone agrees that rules are there to assist in trying to help us appreciate the difficult decisions made by real commanders
    the object isn’t to corral and stear us to follow rupes religiously
    When will you guys take a pen.. strike through a rule line you question and do your own thing?
    Rule writes.. here’s a question
    Why can’t we use the same basics for all periods? Nothing and horses more at the same rate for the past millenia
    Weapons have basically the same range until the American civil war
    It’s the tactics that matter
    Just a thought

    • That’s what I dislike most about computer games. You can’t just change the rules and alter things. You’re stuck.

      You know, we discussed this moving from the American Revolution to the Civil War. At the scale of Pub Battles, what has really changed? Musket range is much longer and more accurate. The shot is much bigger but still takes about the same time to reload if not longer. Advancing on the enemy you are under more deadly fire for a longer period of time but the units also had 2-3 times more men in them. What is the end result of all that? Mostly nothing.

      At this scale, Pub Battles doesn’t distinguish between exchanging volley’s from a distance or closing to direct bayonet assault. We roll all this into an ‘attack’. The net result is the same. Two opposing units met, they exchanged fire and suffered losses until 1 side broke and ran. Did they break and run from the musket fire before they closed to actual contact? Likely. Maybe they did actually clash directly. So what? Same result pretty much at this scale.

      We are starting to talk about pre-powder battles now. Did they have swords, spears, sticks, nerf guns? Who knows? Does it matter much? At this scale it looks the same. 2 units clash, take losses, 1 breaks and runs. -I’m assuming here both units are armed with the same thing. We would account for inf vs cav, spears vs archers, swords vs nerf guns etc. 🙂

      I think there is a lot more in common than there are differences.

  3. It helps if one has map-reading skills. But one might make certain assumptions as well. On the matter of the river crossing, I would infer that there is a ford there. A bridge, or even a ferry, would be so marked. The roads with dots alongside are tree lined – quite a common feature in Italy. I see that there are some areas of land that are shaded – clearly not wooded, but not the same as the unshaded country neither. There are any number of possibilities as to what that might be eg cleared country with standing stumps, uncultivated country, cultivated country, light brush, ploughed land… all sorts. Take your pick.

    I like the idea, although some kind of heads up anent this design approach might not go amiss…

  4. I think you are on the right track – command and control is part science and part art. Is the art portion that distinguishes experienced commanders. To answer an earlier question – commanders did write on maps to correct or clarify information. A map was (and is) a tool to be improved as more information and intelligence is received.

  5. In a sense this is fine, but the DnD analogy was not amiss because you are advocating a ‘make your own adventure’ approach.
    It’s true that maps can be vague, etc and as a commander you would have to make a decision about what was represented. Is that a ferry, ford, nothing, etc? But then you would find out, sooner or later, what the actual situation was. As you marched or advanced you would find the ford or ferry or lack of it. This would not be decided upon by agreement or die roll. Your effort is tested against reality.
    The post above conflates two things that are separate, the commanders guestimate and the reality that is.
    So, whilst I would find the pondering over a map an enjoyable exercise I would not be satisfied with having to decide the ‘reality’ on agreement.
    In DnD the dungeon master would have it covered, I might never know if they made it up on the spot or if it was all ready there, and I wouldn’t mind because that is a different style of enjoyment than that of pitting yourself against something in an environment with settled boundaries. In one it is more about a bit of fantastical fun with friends, in the other it is more about an intellectual challenge.
    How much fun would I have playing ‘Marengo’ with five different friends who each decided individually if a key river or bridge was or wasn’t there? Each game might be fun in itself but they would have little relationship with each other, five different Marengos. Five different ‘what-ifs’ if you like, instead of just one.
    Whilst it is cool and provides its own enjoyment to play on an un-umpired (ie. not clarified in the design process) period map one would have to accept the vagaries it gives. The justification is, as indicated in the post, in the vagary itself, its just that it won’t be to everyones taste.

  6. There’s no bridge depicted on the map because the staff adjutant who drew it from memory months (or years) after the battle occurred probably never saw it with his own eyes and had no idea whether it was a ford, a ferry, or a bridge.

    Most period battlefield maps were drawn long after the battle. If you really want to give someone the period command experience, don’t give them any map at all. Or hand them a quick and incomplete sketch made by one of their cavalry scouts. Or just indicate the features they can see with their own eyes from their command post. But if you’re going to do that, you’ll need a solid way to adjudicate what happens when units get into “unseen” territory (or how to handle it when two sides’ maps are radically different, as was often the case). And “talk amongst yourselves” is insufficient. At that point we’re not playing a wargame, we’re writing fanfic about a battle.

    I get wanting to include the “fog of war,” but there are better ways to do it. This approach is the height of laziness, and is just plain bad game design.

  7. I agree with Munin. I think the board and rules should be as clear as possible. The player assumes the role of commander and makes decisions. The “fog of war” rule can introduce more unknowns and thus make the game more realistic. However, players should always be bound by rules.
    I am afraid that in every controversial case, the “right” will be on the player’s side who will be in a better physical shape 🙂

  8. IMO, very eloquently stated. Yes, I don’t have a problem with ambiguous symbols on a map and it can always be resolved one way or another. To add an element of surprise, one could, as an example, roll dice once the movement was made to see if there is a crossing at a river or not. Most important is your comment that it’s not the winning that drives one to play. Yes, I know that some of us are very competitive, so boardgaming offers this opportunity. However, in all honesty, I believe that most of us play the game for the “journey”, hoping that it results in a close conflict. If that is achieved, and I come away with a better appreciation and understanding of that historic event. then what’s not to like.

  9. I think the Emperor wears no clothes. Saying the failure to include sufficient information in the rules and map is by design is more likely an excuse rather than a design decision. Sure, there is no desire, nor is there a need, for a 100 page rule book. However, when swamps/marshes or some such terrain appears on the map and there is no statement concerning the effect or non-effect that is simply poor writing and editing.

    I know from history that the ridge was important, but I cannot tell from the map whether it exists in several spaces or not. If I were the commander in the field, I could send a scout to that point and learn, something denied me in a game. Never having been to this region of Italy, I have no idea what the terrain is like and cannot infer from my experience. I live in a swampy area, so when I see swamp, I see a real problem. You indicate the swamp is no problem at all.

    It is questionable to tell the player, who just spent $87.00 on your game, that he has to fill in the significant blanks you left in the rules and map, particularly if he has no basis to judge what the answer should be.

  10. Agreed – I can plainly see what the designer intends, but the mistake he is making is presuming that his audience will embrace his vision but for the most part I believe that is untrue. We have industry standards in the hobby, and to advocate that an unclear map and unclear rules is a good thing is clearly misguided.

    What is the point of having a simple and accessible game if the players stumble and struggle right at the onset?

    Pub Battles is interesting; it’s different. I want to really like it (I only own Marengo). But it’s also very expensive. As is, I cannot recommend the game to my friends because I know that they will not appreciate nor endure what Command Post is trying to accomplish.

    It’s easy to criticize something, solutions are more helpful. I would strongly suggest including a Terrain Key, Game Turn Ttrack, and tightening up the rules just a bit (8 to 10 pages?) – that would go a long way towards bringing Pub Battles into line with conventional expectations while still retaining the majority of the designer’s vision. Do so, and just maybe I’ll purchase another game in the series!

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