Sunday, 3 May 2009

Operational-level Wargame Design 4: Why activation cards?

Other than in a real-time computer simulation, it is almost impossible to design a wargame without having to make compromises as to who can do what and when they can do it.

Basically it comes down to a choice between two alternatives:
  • 'I go; you go';
  • Simultaneous movement.
Over many years I have played – and designed – wargames using both of these alternatives, but I have never felt satisfied with the results.

If the ‘I go; you go’ method is used, it can lead to one side standing around waiting for their turn whilst the other side moves it forces and initiates combat; this is both boring and not conducive to ‘fun’ wargaming. If the ‘simultaneous movement’ method is used, it is crucial that players are very specific in what they intend to happen when they write down their orders, otherwise games seem to dissolve into series of acrimonious arguments. In addition, neither system works if – like me – a lot of your wargaming is done solo.

The first alternative method to these two mainstays of wargames design that I ever incorporated into one of my own designs was copied from an idea in John Sandars’ AN INTRODUCTION TO WARGAMING (1975). He used a numbered counter system to determine the order in which units were activated during each turn. At the beginning of each turn the players picked the same number of numbered counters out of a bag as units they commanded. They then allocated a numbered counter to each unit in the order that they wanted that unit to be activated during the turn. When the turn began, the unit with number ‘1’ was activated, then ‘2’, and so on until each unit had been activated. The counters were then collected back in and put back into the bag for the next turn.

This modified version of ‘I go; you go’ seemed to overcome some of the problems generated by the conventional ‘I go; you go’ system, although lovers of ‘simultaneous movement’ still objected to it. Furthermore, unless the numbered counters were picked out of the bag ‘blind’ and allocated to units unseen, it did not work well in solo games.

The next method I used was developed from ideas that I first read in Larry Brom’s THE SWORD AND THE FLAME. This method used a pack of playing cards where one side was allocated ‘red’ and the other ‘black’. The playing cards were shuffled, and when a ‘red’ card was turned over, the ‘red’ side could activate a unit, and when a ‘black’ card was turned over, the ‘black’ side could activate a unit. This continued until all the playing cards had been turned over, at which point they were reshuffled and play continued.

This ‘continuous movement’ system did seem to work well with both face-to-face and solo wargames, and I used it in BUNDOCK AND BAYONETS and RESTLESS NATIVES. However some players objected to the idea that one unit could – if the turn of cards allowed it – be activated several times one after another.

Richard Brooks and Ian Drury (both of whom are fellow members of Wargame Developments) then introduced me to a different method of using playing cards to determine the order in which units were activated. They used the smallest playing cards that are generally available (they are specially produced for the card game ‘Solitaire’). The cards were shuffled and then dealt face down to each unit on the table, and once dealt, they were turned over. The unit that had been dealt the playing card with the lowest value was activated first, then the unit with the next lowest value playing card, and so on until all the units that could be activated had been activated. This system worked extremely well, and gave the feeling of ‘continuous movement’ without allowing a unit to be activated time and time again before their opponents could respond. I was so impressed with what became a standard element of all the RED SQUARE wargame designs that I have used it in almost all my wargame designs of recent years, including RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES and REDCOATS AND NATIVES.

My only objection to this system is an aesthetic one; I don’t like having the playing cards on the tabletop. I therefore looked around for an alternative that would do the same job but would not require me to deal playing cards onto the tabletop. After a couple of false starts I came up with the concept of activation cards.

Each unit has an activation card that bears its name. These are printed onto business cards using an inkjet printer, and are then laminated. When a unit is deployed onto the tabletop, its activation card is added to the pack of activation cards that will be used for this wargame. The pack is shuffled, and when a unit’s activation card is turned over, that unit is activated.

It is worth noting that a variation of this system was used for SOLFERINO IN THIRTY MINUTES, the main difference being that instead of unit activation cards, there were commander activation cards.

This system has worked well in play-tests, and it is the system that I will be using in my operational-level wargame design.


  1. Hi Bob,

    I have also been a strong supporter of the use of activation cards in my own games, and have been experimenting with various systems myself.

    If I understand your system correctly, you draw one card at a time, and the unit(s) listed on the card, are then activated. When I employed this system, players objected that it was made more difficult to have units (listed on different cards) act together, e.g. in a combined attack, or a combined manoeuvre. Granted, this depends on the resolution of units listed on each card, but it still an objection that might be significant in some underlying movement/combat resolution systems.

    We have experimented with 2 fixes to counter this:

    1. Lay out the entire sequence of cards beforehand. Thus, it is known what unit will act first, what unit will act second etc. all the ay down to the last unit. Units might still act out of sequence to each other, but at least every player can take the order in which future units are activated into account. This is exactly the same as putting a playing card next to each unit on the table to determine order, but avoids the visual cluttering.

    2. Give each player a hand of 3/4/5 cards. Each turn, a player can pick one unit from his hand to activate, and draws a new card at the end of his turn. This is very similar to the system used in Memoir44/Battlecry/Battlelore series of games. It also allows a for a better commander to get a larger hand, and thus having more options available to him.

    Keep up the nice blog!


  2. Phil,

    As most of the games that I play using the 'one at a time' activation cards as solo ones, the players (Me!) have never objected! That said, I can imagine that with several players this would be a problem, which is why in multi-player games I would use the card activation system from the RED SQUARE games (e.g. RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES).

    Your option one would certainly deal with the 'visual blight' of having the cards on the tabletop, and when I redraft the operational-level rules I may well 'borrow' it.

    Option two is also one that I have seen and used before - I own copies of both Memoir 44 and Battlecry - and it is very effective. Again, this is a very viable option to use, and one that might well be worth experimenting with.

    Thank you very much for your suggestions and kind words about my blog,



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