The Waving Flag: Why Are Wargames Rules Complex?

Monday 14 January 2013

Why Are Wargames Rules Complex?

The short answer is because they end up using complex logic not by design but by default and convention. I've been reminded of this very recently. My weekend project was working through the play sheets in the back of the Field of Glory Renaissance rules.

Depending on the rules author's approach, rules tend to tell you either what you can do or what you can't do. The complex logic arises when these approaches are mixed with rules structured like "factor W applies against X except against Y in circumstance Z".

In the body of the rules many authors take care to make the meaning clear and unambiguous. However, the space restrictions of a quick reference sheet, and when rules are tabulated in the body of the rules, places a heavy emphasis on logical consistency, brevity and clarity. These three are very hard to achieve but are crucial in assisting readers to quickly assimilate the mass of detail required to play the game.

Let's look at a few examples from the Points of Advantage (POA) table on page 123 of the Field of Glory rulebook for Renaissance warfare:

  1. Impact foot / + POA / against any foot.
  2. Heavy weapon / +POA / against any except pike in 3 or more ranks, protected pike, protected shot, foot with bayonet or impact foot.
  3. Light lancers / Only in open terrain / +POA / against any except elephants, battle wagons, heavy lancers, pistol or non-charging steady foot who are any of spearmen pike, protected shot or foot with bayonet.
  4. Pike in 4 or more ranks whether charging or not, unless Fragmented or Severely Disordered / Only in open terrain / +POA / against any. 

Rule [1] is a simple rule structured positively. Rule [2] is not so clear as the "against any" is so heavily qualified it becomes redundant and meaningless. Rule [2] reads as a negative list despite the positive phrasing. Rule [3] is complex because not only is it written as a false positive like rule [2] but the troop type is now qualified. Rule [4] is more complex still with a second troop type qualification. Stripping away the detail shows the inconsistent sentence (or row) logic:

  1. Type A has factor B against C.
  2. Type A has factor B except against Y.
  3. Type A, if X, has factor B expect against Y.
  4. Type A, unless X, if Y, has factor B against C.
All the examples can be accommodated in this somewhat inelegant logical form:
  1. Type A, unless X, if Y, has factor B against C, except D.

Needless to say, I found my first reading of the table tedious and a touch confusing. Only after some study did I realised what was causing it: the "false positive" phrasing of many of the rules coupled with the occasional complex qualification of the troop types.

When scanning the table the sentence (or row) logic switches back and forth. One row tells me what applies whilst the next tells me what doesn't. Furthermore restrictions and qualifications occur in three different columns of the table. I wished they'd all been phrased something like this:

  1. Impact foot / +POA / Not vs. mounted, Elephants.
  2. Heavy weapon / +POA / Not vs. Pike in >2 ranks, protected Shot, bayonet or impact Foot.
  3. Light lancers / +POA / Not vs Elephants, Battle Wagons, Heavy lancers, Pistols, non-charging and steady Spear, Pike, protected Shot or bayonet Foot / Only in open terrain.
  4. Pike in 4 ranks / +POA / Unless Fragmented or Severely Disordered / Only in open terrain

They are not perfect either but they are all of the simpler logical form:

  1. Type A has factor B Not vs. C unless D only if E etc.

The major benefit would come when scanning the table during a game because I would know I was always looking for restrictions and qualifiers in the same place(s).

Sadly, these problems are not restricted to Field of Glory. Historically, rules have often been written this way. There's nothing on page 123 that looks unusual, or untoward, to alert the authors to the problems. Put another way, the table fits well within the norms and conventions of wargames rules. Unfortunately, this is not a compliment.

Doubtless the restrictions arose during play testing and as the rules were tweaked and further refined to balance the game. Nothing wrong there; as long as everything is polished once the table of rules was finalised. I don't think this has happened with the examples above. Shame really as a review of the presentation to ensure consistency would really help the reader and encourage people to play the game.

1 comment :

Vexillia said...

Read the discussion this article started on TMP - 50 replies and still rising.

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