Friday, 17 August 2018

Operational Art revisited

Way back in 2009 I wrote a series of blog entries about designing an operational-level wargame. In many ways it was a step on the road towards HEXBLITZ and – to a lesser extent – THE PORTABLE WARGAME. On 28th April 2009 I set out my design parameters. These were:
  • The terrain will be divided into 10cm hexes (i.e. Hexon II)
  • An individual stand will represent a regiment-sized unit or a divisional/corps/army HQ;
  • Stands will be grouped together to form divisions (e.g. three infantry stands, a field artillery stand, and a divisional HQ stand form an infantry division) or to form corps/army assets (e.g. a tank regiment, a medium artillery regiment, a heavy artillery regiment, and a corps/army HQ stand form a corps’ or army’s assets)
  • Activation cards will be used for each division or group of corps/army assets
  • Only stands from the same division or group of corps/army assets will be able to occupy the same hex
  • Each stand will be allocated a combat value based upon its experience, training, and equipment. This combat value – which will be indicated by a numbered magnetic marker – will be degraded during the battle as the result of combat
  • Each HQ stand will be allocated a morale value for the division or group of corps/army assets it controls. This morale value – which will be indicated by a numbered magnetic marker – will be degraded during the battle as the result of combat
  • Combat will be hex to hex, with the one stand in a hex – with the support of any other stands from the same division or group of corps/army assets that are in that hex – attacking an enemy stand in another hex
  • The combat system will use a D12 for German forces and a D10 for all other forces (i.e. Russian and Axis allies)
  • The combat system will be resolved by comparing the attacking stand’s dice score added to the attacking stand’s combat value and any relevant combat factors (e.g. cover, terrain) with the defending stand’s dice score added to the defending stand’s combat value and any relevant combat factors
I used the following photograph to show what I thought a Russian Rifle Division might look like.

Kind of looks familiar, doesn’t it? In fact it could almost be one of the Rifle Divisions that formed part of my Thistlebarrow concept Russian Army.

I then followed this up with a series of blog entries that justified the design choices I had made and how they were incorporated into the rules.
Looking back at the above – and especially the last two – I am struck by the fact that I never quite finished this project. I had a set of operational-level wargames rules that worked … but which were not particularly fun to use. As a result, I did not devote any more time to this project and moved on to work on what eventually became WHEN EMPIRES CLASH!

Re-reading the play-test was particularly interesting. After unpicking all the explanations about how the rules worked, the battle report read rather like the sort of description of a battle one would read in a military history book.

If I am going to embrace the Thistlebarrow concept for my World War 2 project, it strikes me that a developed version of my OPERATIONAL ART rules might be a better set of rules to use than HEXBLITZ.

It is certainly something for me to think about over the next few days.


  1. I expect Ion will comment as his concept of allocating SP to a formation rather than a unit sounds very similar to what you propose above.
    I think I've seen these; I suspect that I dismissed them for a couple of reasons:
    They seem to be designed specifically for the Russian Front
    The scale of the stands

    I'm aware that the principles behind them are more universal (whatever the current thoughts are on Dupuy et al) so should be applicable to all C20th.

    Personally, I'd like more flexibility as regards stand scale. I'm struck when reading accounts how often small detachments of well motivated troops can influence events out of all proportion to their strength (especially when attacking flanks or rear).

    It struck me as perhaps significant that you only managed one turn; was that because everyone could act I wonder? It's possible to over-egg the friction element, but if there are no limits to how many "manoeuvre elements" can act in a turn, I think there's a real danger of too much happening at once. Whether it's DBA's PIP or C&C / Memoir 44's sector cards, these systems do limit activity without completely freezing the action.

    Interestingly such limitation systems also encourage the grouping of various units into larger formations so the other goal of good game design is met: the number of "elements" a player controls. I've read that between 8 and 12 is the ideal.

    I also liked the idea that morale should be separate from fighting ability; the downside is that it's 2 things to keep track of rather than just one.

    When trying to write my own operational set I was toying with factoring fatigue into the losses. So when a unit took "hits", these could reduce the unit to "worn" or "spent" status. These impacted the ability of a unit to either act (it got harder) or how effective it was. In effect I was trying to introduce a concept of attrition linked to troop quality. The ideas were a fusion of Fire & Fury with an article from the Journal of SOTCW (itself based on F&F I suspect).

    I did wonder about how dice influenced the combat was. I personally dislike different types of dice. Using D10s and D12s is going to produce a very wide spread of results. A normal D6 would give +1 to +6, 2xD6 either 2-12 or from -5 to +5 if using a plus and minus die, but with 2x dice there is more chance of an average result.

    Food for thought.


    1. Neil Patterson,

      Thanks for your comment. I found what you wrote very interesting, and some of your suggestions match some of my own thinking. I am sure that Archduke Piccolo will make a comment about allocating SPs to formations rather than units, even though in these rules they were referred to as Morale Value.

      When I wrote these rules nine years ago, the intention was that they would be used to recreate Eastern Front/Great Patriotic War battles between the Russians and the Axis forces. I’d already experimented with rules where stands/units represented battalion-sized units, but for the limited tabletop space I had available, I needed to move up to regiment-sized units as the main manoeuvre elements.

      Whereas I agree that some small forces can have a totally disproportionate effect of the enemy in relation to their size, these rules were not designed to fight those sorts of lower-level actions. To do that I would probably use HEXBLITZ or THE PORTABLE WARGAME and not OPERATIONAL ART, where the level of abstraction in the rules does not – in my opinion – make them a suitable option.

      Although I only covered one turn in the battle report, the combat did continue afterwards, and the Germans conducted a fighting retreat off the tabletop although they almost did not make it! I suspect that a better option might be to replace the present Activation Cards with an alternative system that limits how much an individual formation can do each turn.

      I am not happy with the current morale system, and I am thinking of replacing it with something that is easier to use but which achieves the same end. Quite how I am going to do that is unclear at the moment, but I may look at something like the system I have used in some of my other rules to restrict what a unit or formation can do once it reaches a certain level of loss of ‘will to combat’.

      One thing that I going to get rid of is the use of D10s and D12s. Whatever system I come up with, it is going to use D6s. They are simpler to use, and players don’t confuse them in the heat of tabletop battle! This has certainly happened on other occasions, and as I like to avoid complexity and embrace simplicity, the choice of D6s makes complete sense to me.

      All the best,


    2. Bob,

      I understand the rationale behind the scale chosen; when you get to the Eastern Front the vastness of it means you have to think of stands representing regiments or brigades, just to get a sense of the action.
      I don't think I expressed myself very well; what I meant was that while an operational set of rules almost certainly needs a set size for a stand, it also should have the capacity to cater for detachments(s) of a lower level. For example Megablitz allows for low strength company size stands for recce.
      I'd go further and suggest that as a lot of combat etc is abstracted, a stand could probably represent either a battalion, brigade or even division without much change to the mechanisms. Where it would need to change is ground scale. Oddly you would not necessarily have to consider mechanical changes to movement, if you alter the time scale.
      So say 1 hex represents average foot speed for a half hour time scale. Upping the level will probably necessitate increasing the time scale to 1 hour and doubling the ground scale. Foot would still move 1 hex. Ranges would reduce by 50%.
      The lower the level, the more detail will probably have to creep in.
      I think what I'm advocating is an operational set that would cater for a range of unit scales, rather than distinct sets for different nominal divisional or corps level games. I'm aware there are differences, but I'm not convinced they are significant enough to require entirely separate rule sets, especially when so much is abstracted.

    3. I have been interested in this conversation. There are two reasons for my exploring the assignment of SPs (let;s stay with that nomenclature for now) to formations rather than individual stands. One is simply pragmatics: to limit the number of SP markers kicking around. The other is having rather an eye to the NQM (Not Quite Mechanised) game system.
      It is still experimental, and there are aspects with which I am not quite comfortable (disjunct between infantry/cavalry SPs on the one hand and Artillery/armour on the other), but I need to give them a good shake-out first.
      The 'by formation' is really 'by formation/by arm. A brigade group comprising 3 battalions and an attached artillery regiment, say, would be split out into separate entities - the three infantry stands forming one, and the artillery - a single piece forming the other.

      So far the system envisages a 'basic' SP value based on the size of the unit, with extra SPs added on for training, equipment and such. I've toyed with the idea of taking the basic SP value for the morale value (in effect) and the modified to be used for 'attack dice'. So a Brigade group of 3 stands would have a 'basic' SP of 3 (its MV) but if experienced (+1) and well equipped (+1) would have a fighting value of 5. It's just an idea at this stage: I haven't looked into it in any detail. Presently the modifications apply to both.

      I have also been looking into some sort of stacking system, assigning eacj 'entity' a stacking value. Command and recon stands have a stacking value of 0, but others equal to their 'basic' SP value. A stacking limit might tentatively be limited to 4, excepting formations comprising more than 4SPs basic.

      I guess I have quite a few little articles to write!

    4. Neil Patterson,

      Now I understand!

      In some of my other rules (including THE PORTABLE WARGAME) I have specifically not stated what a unit/stand/base represents so that the rules can be used for different levels of combat. I had not considered doing that for OPERATIONAL ART, but you make a good case for doing so.

      I had though of introducing smaller units for specific tasks (e.g. reconnaissance), but had not got around to thinking about how they would fit in with the existing system for allocating Combat Values. That is certainly something else for me to consider.

      Thanks again for your very useful comments.

      All the best,


    5. Archduke Piccolo,

      Thanks very much for sharing your current thinking with us.

      I can follow your thinking regarding the allocation SPs to formations that comprise the same arm, but I wonder how that would work if I wanted to split that formation over several hexes. That is the problem I am trying to get my head around with regard to the Morale Value for my formations as opposed to Combat Values (or SPs) for their component parts. I think that there must be a simple solution out there; I just have not found it yet!

      I am likely to stick to my current 'if they fit within the hex, they can be in the hex' approach to stacking. I can see the way you are thinking, but I am not sure how it would work in practice.

      I suspect that this conversation is likely to continue on and off for some time. It has certain l got my tired old brain working, which is no bad thing.

      All the best,


    6. "Getting the thing to work in prectice' - that's the trick, isn't it? My 'Tebaga Gap' and 'Sidi Rezegh' games were pretty close to what I want, but that was a level down from what we are discussing here (as I understand it). I was about to continue here, but I think I might take up the discussion On my blog spot. I can do pictures, then!

    7. Archduke Piccolo,

      Good wargame design is ultimately about producing something that works, even if it isn't perfect. Far too many designers add so much 'chrome' that they end up with monsters. I try to take to other approach and develop games that work as simply and easily as I can.

      All the best,


    8. Bob,
      Some of my thoughts on smaller formations is due to work on Arab-Israeli Megablitz orbats for 1967.
      Here you have situations where an Israeli tank company is attached to an paratroop brigade. Now you could just subsume that attachment into the larger formation, but when you have a potential 3-4+ SP armour stand I personally think it's worth representing.
      This is similar to Ion's thoughts on SP by arm. In MB terms we would have 6xcoys of elite paras in half tracks (8 SP) with an elite (possibly superior) M48 with 4-5 SP.
      In numerical terms the M48 are minimal, but operationally significant.

    9. Neil, you have just reminded me of my earlier thoughts on 'mixed arm' units. For WW2 this applies pretty much to things like Tank and Mechanised Brigades. But I'm now leaning towards giving the two arms separate SPs, but allowing stacking. H'mmm.

      I also had the idea of breaking up the 27th NZ MG Battalion and adding a Vickers stand to each brigade group, representing an attached company , adding 1 to the SPs of each. It works when a stand represents a company or some part of a battalion, but not quite so well when a stand represents a battalion, as in the Russian formations.

      I have also wondered about the situations in which small numbers of equipment are present but are below the grain of the game scale. In Hexblitz a tank Company would probably have a basic SP=1, plus add-ons for being a tank and being veteran and such. But all this formation has is a troop (or, if Russian, a heavy company of 5 KVs, say). You want them represented. My first thought is to add up the SPs as if there were 15, then jalve them, rounding up. If it is integral to a mixed formation, than those SPs are added to the whole.

      We might consider a Russian Guards Rifle Brigade, with a heavt tank Company attached for some mission. The Brigade comprises 3 battalions, each of 3 weak companies plus support weapons - say SP=4 + 1 Guards /2 for half-strength coys by Western standards SP=3.. Then the heavy tank troop is SP = 1 (basic) +1 (Tank) +1 (Heavy type) = 3. Halved as it's a single troop = 2 (rounded). Total for the reinforced Rifle Brigade group: 3 + 2 = 5. Actually, since both terms are rounded, one should cancel the other, which would give the formation of 3 infantry and one tank stand an SP=4. Reasonable?

    10. Neil Patterson,

      I see your reasoning and it makes sense. I'm just not sure how I could represent that on the tabletop if the main manoeuvre elements are regiment-sized. It is much easier if the main manoeuvre elements are battalion or company-sized. That said, I'm sure there must be a way to do it; I just haven't found it yet!

      All the best,


    11. Archduke Piccolo,

      I follow your thinking, and your example of the reinforced Russian Guards Rifle Brigade, makes sense. I would probably cancel out the rounded up parts of the calculations in the interest of balance.

      All the best,


    12. Bob,
      It would be simple to represent (physically) were you to use smaller scale miniatures. A point which I think you made in the original, the aesthetics being improved with the use of more smaller figures.
      A good example of this is Bob Mackenzie's webpage illustrating his C20th version of Bloody Big Battles where several 1/300 elements are placed loosely on a larger formation base.
      Alas if you prefer larger scale miniatures you will have to compromise. Either the armour is imagined and factored in or an extra model is used with the inherent distortion of something representing more than it is. That would however help with the "fog of war".
      I think Ion likes to physically represent SP with elements, so would have a model tank and 3x CD infantry bases for his Russians.

    13. Neil Patterson,

      Using smaller scale figures and vehicles would be one answer ... but as I have box loads of painted and unpainted 20mm stuff (including quite a large number of ROCO Minitanks) I'd either have to sell my existing collection and start afresh OR stick with what I have.

      Like Ion, my preference is for having elements on the tabletop that show what they represent, so a Rifle Division with tank support would have to have a tank model present with the division to show that.

      All the best,


  2. Excuse me for a bit of an off-topic comment, but as the issue of blog comment notification not working has come up on your blog before I wondered if anyone else has recently received an email stating "You have been invited to receive email notifications" for their blog/s? I haven't tried it yet to see if it resolves the problem.

    To get back on topic - I do like the idea of small numbers of figures in this sort of arrangement for tabletop battles in small spaces. Seems like a great option for limited time/budgets/storage space/etc., and a good way to explore multiple genres/eras as well, or to build up a variety of forces for campaigns.

    1. Fitz-Badger,

      I don't know about anyone else, but I have not had that message regarding email notifications. From what I can gather from some of the ongoing discussions on forums, the 'solution' that has worked for some people has not worked for everyone, and there are some bloggers who are still not getting email notifications.

      In a world where space is limited for many people, having rules that allow players to fight tabletop battles that are not skirmishes in a small area with a few figures seems to me to make a lot of sense, and although I do like to take part in larger battles, they are not my wargaming be-all-and-end-all.

      All the best,



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