Design Notes

© Frank Chadwick & Greg Novak

Game design is an intensely personal activity. It sounds pretentious (to me) to call it “art,” but it is “art-like” in a number of ways, not least in that what you like is largely a matter of taste. That is one of the several reasons I don’t like to criticize other people’s designs, particularly designs which are widely played and enjoyed. A game’s reason for existence is to be played and enjoyed, and so a game which is widely played and enjoyed is – by definition – a good game. Attempts by some people to erect elaborate arguments as to why the games they like are, in some objective sense, better games than those enjoyed by other people is certainly a waste of time and is probably an exercise in snobbery as well.

So I think, given the above, that attempts to defend a design with words are futile; the proof is in the playing. What I can and will do with these notes, though, is describe why I did the things I did, and in the process give you at least some understanding of the design philosophy.

SCOPE AND SCALE

The decisions concerning scope and scale are absolutely central to the Volley & Bayonet design. What I originally wanted from the game – in terms of scope — was the ability to put any one of a number of well-known Napoleonic battles on a single tabletop, and not an impossibly large one at that, and then fight the battle to conclusion in one game session of reasonable length. That was the design goal from the very start, and I have never found any reason to deviate from that goal.

The reason for the goal was simple: what interested me most about the Napoleonic Wars was the army-level view of the battlefield. When we think about the Napoleonic Wars, I believe that most of us think Waterloo, Austerlitz, Marengo, Borodino, Leipzig, Jena-Auerstaedt, etc., as opposed to the charge of the Zastrow Cuirasiers at the Great Redoubt, or the breaking of the 4th Ligne’s square by the Russian Garde Du Corps on the slopes of the Stare Vinohrady. So my viewpoint of the import aspects of the Napoleonic Wars shaped the scope of the game decisively.

The scientific notion of testability provided an additional motivation – not that I make any claims as to the game being particularly precise, objective, or scientific. All rules sets portray the capabilities of different armies as – unavoidably – the author sees them. But without being able to set up and re-fight entire historical battles, it is nearly impossible to find any sort of objective standard against which to measure the author’s judgments. With Volley & Bayonet, for better or for worse, you can.

This design goal all but mandated a ground scale of 1”/100 yards, and a time scale of one hour per turn, and much else followed from that. Troops in road column could march at a sustained rate of between 2.5 and 3 miles per hour, and that’s what road march movement in the game works out to. Field maneuver is slower, of course, because it builds in a lot of “friction,’ – pauses to wait for new orders, realignment with adjacent units, and so on. Still, after cutting the road march movement by a third, new players of the game almost always remark on how big the movement rates are. If you want to have a game where maneuver matters, you need to be able to move.

Most armies in this period ended up settling on maneuver units of between 1500 and 3000 men, and usually called them brigades. Had I gone with a smaller scale unit, such as battalion, I felt that a more elaborate command control system would have been necessary, and I wanted to keep the CC system as austere as possible. I wanted players to worry about what they wanted to do and what they suspected their opponent intended to do, and put as few mechanical systems in the way of that as possible.

Once unit size was settled, frontage was a pretty simple matter, although not so much in a mathematical or scientific manner. It’s true we know the frontage of X number of men in line, but when deciding on a brigade frontage, everything depends on what sorts of assumptions you make about its depth and intervals the brigade’s battalions will use. What I ended up doing instead was looking at lots and lots of maps of Napoleonic battles, and made a lot of diagrams of corps frontages divided into division and brigade frontages. Three hundred yards ended up looking good to me. The fact that, for the earlier “linear” armies, a 1500-man regiment in three-deep line takes up 300 yards of frontage pretty much sealed the deal.

SIMULTANEOUS OR SEQUENTIAL ACTION

There’s an argument to be made that events unfold simultaneously during a battle, and a lot of designers have come up with some pretty clever ways of building that in, including alternating activation of units and so forth. But for my money, sequential action works just fine – at least for this period of history. Admittedly, there are a lot of simultaneous things going on which can throw sand in the gears of the machinery of an army, but at the command level both sides have decision cycles, and lags between the issuance and execution of orders, which tend to produce the effect of punch followed by counterpunch. That’s what I get out of the accounts of these battles, at any rate, and the alternating play sequence captures the cyclic effect of those actions and reactions to my satisfaction.

THE SWORD OR THE SWORDSMAN

There were certainly differences in Napoleonic armies – important differences – and the game addresses those which I considered key to understanding the battlefield. Certainly the change from what we define in game terms as “linear” armies to “massed” armies is a tactical watershed which provides a sharp delineation between the armies of the ancien regime and the Napoleonic (and later) eras. Other obvious differences are morale numbers, assigned training levels, and some obvious organizational differences. But aside from these, players will notice the absence of “national modifiers.”  I am very suspicious of national modifiers, and I tend to think of them as relics of nineteenth century aristocratic sensibilities – the notion that you could tell a lot about an army by it national temperament, by the “stock” from which its common soldiers were bred, as if they were livestock.

In my opinion, the French were not more “excitable”, the Russians were not more bovine, the British upper lip was not genetically stiffer than any other. All armies worked pretty much the same way; soldiers responded to training and leadership. The better its training and leadership, and the more combat experience it had, the better a unit performed.

Let me emphasize again that this is my opinion. Game design is intensely personal, and part of my opinion – with respect to the game design you have here – is certainly driven by the sort of game I want to play. But beyond that, I find the nineteenth century historical approach to warfare — that the primary contribution each great military leader of history  made was to forge a uniquely capable weapon, and that the wielding of that weapon was a natural and almost trivial outgrowth of that – unconvincing. I do not believe that the British army in the peninsula was a uniquely more capable army than the French on some elemental level; I believe instead that Wellington consistently out-fought the French commanders sent against him by virtue of superior generalship. That is, his victories are more convincingly explained by his swordsmanship than by the unique qualities of his sword.

This is central to the philosophy of Volley & Bayonet. The game is about matching the abilities of two (or more) generals, represented by the players; it is not about simply observing how two armies interact.

FORMATIONS… OR RATHER THEIR ABSENCE

One of the first things new players notice – after the large movement rates – is the lack of the familiar column line and square infantry formations. In the original edition of these rules I said that you don’t need them because that is not the job of corps and army commanders; the decisions on formations are handled at lower levels, and the game assumes that troops are in formations appropriate to the tactical situation in which they find themselves – or perhaps not, in the case of less capable troops, which in part accounts for their lower morale ratings. More on that later.

Since the publication of the rules, several people have argued to me that there are times when army commanders did order formations to be assumed by their troops. Actually, most of the examples they’ve given me have been of corps commanders, but the point would still be valid. Macdonald, Davout, and others certainly did give orders at the start of actions as to the formations in which their troops would fight – or at least begin the fight. But that doesn’t really address the issue at hand, because whatever orders they gave at the start, they did not then spend the rest of the battle running around from battalion to battalion telling them, “Form Line!” Form Column!” “Form Square! HURRY!”

Battalion formations are tactical decisions, and Volley & Bayonet is not really a tactical game; it is a grand tactical game. Your job as commander is to mass your troops where needed and send them in at the right time. Everything after that is up to the brigade and battalion commanders – that is, the morale and combat die rolls.

Also, much of the historical argument in favor of the superiority of this formation over that one has been undercut. The traditional view of the British line triumphing over the French column in the peninsula by virtue of superior firepower has been thoroughly overturned in the last couple decades, and should have been done much sooner, as the evidence was always there. Detailed examinations of the battles on the tactical level provide frequent examples of the French using line when necessary, and giving as good as they got with respect to firepower. Most British successes were achieved with a powerful bayonet charge following only one or two volleys, not the gradual destruction of the French with sustained fire.

By the same token, the traditional view that a square, once formed, was impervious to cavalry except in “extraordinary circumstances” was based largely on British experiences in the peninsula, where cavalry was neither numerous nor, in the case of the French, particularly well-mounted. The battles in the main theaters of war provide numerous examples of well-formed squares broken by cavalry charges, and indeed it would beggar imagination to believe that, in the absence of successes such as these, cavalry would continue to throw itself at squares all the way through the end of the Napoleonic wars.

CHAOS AND RANDOMNESS

Battlefields are chaotic landscapes, I have heard it argued, so there should be more randomness in games, not less. I disagree. Go out and stand under a flock of Canadian Geese as they are flying north in the spring, and see if one of them craps on your head. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, and the randomness of that may be a profound allegorical statement on the nature of life, but it’s not what I’d call a fun game.

While there is certainly a great deal chaos on the battlefield, I think we can over-emphasize it in our designs. For one thing, large numbers of genuinely random events can simply be ignored at the macro level and be assumed to cancel each other out, and this is particularly the case on the black powder battlefield. At the individual fusilier level, nothing makes sense. At the division level it makes a little sense. At the corps and army level there is a clearly discernable pattern. Why? Big numbers at work. The higher up you go, the more the individual chaotic elements tend to cancel each other out and enable you to see order.

Chaos theory recognizes this effect, and there is an excellent physical universe example of it – glass. Glass, for all its perceived rigidity, is actually a very slowly moving fluid. Each molecule is constantly changing position within a pane of glass, and glass is not perfectly transparent. Molecules gave a degree of transparency, translucency, and reflectivity based on their position and orientation in the glass, and since they are constantly changing position, those characteristics are constantly changing as well. Each photon of light which tries to pass through glass may pass through, be absorbed (which is why the glass warms in sunlight), reflected (which is why glare and ghost reflected images appear on glass), or even deflected slightly in one direction or another, and they do so in a randomly changing manner. But what we see when we look through a pane of glass is not a kaleidoscopic distortion of what is on the other side, because all of those molecular random differences taken together tend to cancel each other out. The image passes through the chaotic zone of the glass and emerges essentially uncorrupted on the other side. Remarkable, isn’t it? And that is exactly why a battle makes much more sense to a general than to a private.

Beyond that, I think that much of the chaos we design into games is the wrong sort. It’s what I’ll call “hard” chaos – it is die roll driven, and no mater what you do, it keeps exactly the same hard level of randomness at all times. But much battlefield chaos is “soft.” That is, it is subject to control. In fact, the mark of a good commander at any level is the ability to impose some sort of order on the chaos, but the sort of “hard” chaos we incorporate into games simply cannot have order imposed on it.

This is, in my opinion, the great weakness – from a historical perspective — of game mechanics which rely on random activation of units: there is no utility in planning. Moltke may have famously said that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but that was meant to encourage flexibility in adapting to the battlefield; he did not mean that all planning was useless and stupid. The play pattern of random activation games, however, generally discourages any planning at all, and the best tactic soon boils down to simply exploiting whatever unit happens to be activated by the dice.

Now, given what I said at the start about criticizing other people’s designs, have I broken my own rule? Not really. If you like random activation mechanics, if you enjoy the feeling they impart to a game, if they are fun, then they are good game mechanics, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy them. But I do not agree that they are a good model of battlefield chaos, which is how they are often justified. They certainly don’t fit my understanding of the nature of battlefield chaos at the corps and army level, which is where Volley & Bayonet is played, although I think the fit may become better the lower down the command tree you go. But beyond the question of “best fit,” I have to admit that I don’t particularly care for it myself as a player. Why not?

Personally, I would prefer even less “hard” randomness in games than we already have – but in the case of Volley & Bayonet that would require mechanics which are quite a bit more complicated than the current ones, and I dislike mechanical complication even more than randomness. For my money, much of the perceived randomness and uncertainty of the battlefield is caused by the unknown decisions of your opponent, not the workings of true random action. That is already present, and remains present even if we go to a completely non-random combat determination system.

How could we have a non-random combat system while still having the chaos of opponent decision-making? Suppose every player had a pool of eighteen die roll chits – three each ones through sixes, and a similar pool of eighteen die roll modifier chits – three each plus twos, plus ones, minus ones, and minus twos, and six no effects. Each time a player has to roll a die, he secretly picks a die roll chit from his pool – whichever one he wants — and his opponent similarly picks a modifier chit, they are compared, and the sum is the die roll. The two chits are moved to the players’ respective discard piles, and once they have exhausted their supply of chits, they take the discard pile and start over. This guarantees that the distribution of dies rolls is exactly even between the players, and gives each player considerable control over individual outcomes of actions, but still maintains perceived randomness due to the inability to predict with assurance what the opponent’s decision will be.

But as I said before, such a system would be mechanically too cumbersome in a game with as many die rolls as Volley & Bayonet. It’s worth thinking about though, isn’t it?

I have also heard the argument that adding in more randomness gives players with less ability or experience a fighting chance. Maybe so, and I certainly understand the reality of the world: gamers come in all different skill levels, and we have to figure out a way for all of us to all have a good time together. But speaking as someone who gets beat playing Volley & Bayonet – and beat a lot – I find it far less frustrating to lose because I was outplayed than I do to lose because in twenty straight die rolls I couldn’t manage to roll a single 6! When someone outplays me, I can learn, I can improve my play, I can perhaps beat them later – I have at least a chance to impose my order on that particular bit of chaos. But dice? Hard, implacable, permanent chaos.

That having been said, are we better off with more or fewer die rolls? As we are stuck with die rolls (it seems), I’m inclined toward many low-value rolls rather than a few high-value rolls, because there is more chance of the luck evening out over the course of the game – big numbers at work.  Glenn Kidd calls a high value roll a “rags-to-riches” die roll, and it’s a good description. Deciding whether a third of your army arrives at the battle or not based on a single roll is a classic “rags-to-riches” die roll, and in my opinion it is the sort of thing which ruins games. 

MASSED OR LINEAR

What was it about an army which enabled it to fight in the “new tactics” which characterized the Napoleonic era and beyond, what the historian Brent Nosworthy has called the “impulse” style of warfare? It’s a good question, and one which the very nature of the game design has required me to grapple with. The game required an objective cut-off criteria, and I originally thought that the answer lie in the drill manuals of the combatants—the use of columns versus lines and that sort of thing.

The more I considered the question, however, the less satisfying an explanation battalion drill became. Most of these armies had drill manuals which included provisions for columns, squares, lines, etc. What characterized the “massed” armies, or the “impulse” armies to use Nosworthy’s terminology, was an ability of the individual maneuver elements to break free of the rigid linear array of the army as a whole and fight on their own. But what gave them that ability? Rather, what denied that ability to the armies of the ancien regime?

I now believe that the change which enabled armies to fight in the new style had little to do with battalion drill and almost everything to do with permanent division organization.

In the Seven Years War, armies in the field literally consisted of a collection of regiments accompanied by a number of major generals and lieutenant generals. On the day of battle, the regiments were lined up and divided into brigades and “divisions” (although that term was seldom used) based on the number of units and generals present. Since these units above the regiment level were so transitory, and had no experience of cooperation, unit commanders had little choice but to try to keep station with the unit to either side and hope for the best. The alternative was chaos.

The formation of the permanent brigade and division – and by permanent I mean for the duration of a campaign – changed this picture completely. Units trained, marched, and camped together with the other units of their brigade and division. They knew their brigade and division commanders by sight and by temperament, and unit commanders knew the commanders of other units in the formation. It became possible to break out of rigid battle array and function as separate maneuver brigades while still maintaining formation cohesion and retaining the ability of units within the division to give each other support as needed, because the units and commanders in the immediate vicinity were no longer strangers. 

Persuasive as I find this argument, I admit to sometimes ignoring it in the interest of “feel.” The 1806 Prussian Army, for example, while organized in permanent brigades and divisions, simply feels like a linear ancien regime army to me, and so I have rated it as such. Likewise, the Saxon Army in 1809 still feels like an ancien regime army, despite its adoption of permanent brigades and divisions, and it is not until the tactical reforms following the 1809 campaign that I rate it as massed. For the most part, however, this was my yardstick, and it was the adoption of permanent divisions by the Russian and Austrian armies, for example, which triggered their conversion from linear to massed. 

MORALE

A lot of the folks who have played this game a long time wonder if “morale” is the right term for the game. “Combat effectiveness” or “cohesion” may come closer to describing what we’re really measuring here. Units of very brave men who don’t know what they are doing can fall into disorder and even rout, not because they don’t have the stomach for combat, but because they cannot maintain their cohesion as a unit under the stress of close combat, and once they stop being a unit and become a collection of individuals, it’s hard to keep hanging around.

That having been said, I think “morale” works as a description, because it is a term immediately familiar to gamers coming new to the system, and the mechanic used to implement it – a die-roll “test” – is a comfortingly familiar morale mechanic. So we’ll keep using the word “morale,” but it pays to remember that a lot goes into the ratings in the game beside simply how good a soldier feels about himself and his unit.

ROAD TO GLORY

A big change in the current edition is the Road To Glory battle generator. Much of the playtesting that went into the new edition was done using this system, and I have to say that I am very happy with the results. We tried and discarded a number of different mechanics, but here are the high points of the process.

Having recently come off of the Test of Battle game generator for Command Decision, our first thought was a sort of mission-oriented approach to the battle generator, and there is certainly merit in that approach. But after tinkering around a bit, it seemed to us that most missions – once the armies actually arrived on the battlefield — were pretty much the same in this era: overturn the opponent’s army, either by outright destruction of his forces or by seizing his lines of communication. What made one battle different from another was not why the armies met on the battlefield, but how they arrived. Once viewed from that perspective, it was also interesting to note how few battles from the Napoleonic Wars simply consisted of two armies lining up on opposite sides of the battlefield and hammering away at each other.

Once we decided on a deployment/arrival model, we looked through as many major battles from the period as we could and tried to categorize them by how the armies arrived or were deployed. Then we did a lot of playing, and ended up discarding some of the deployments as simply not much fun.

There had originally been several deployment options where one side was missing a substantial part of its total force — one or even two wings – but they didn’t make very satisfying games. Neither side had much in the way of tactical decision making. The weaker side hunkered down covering its line of communication, the stronger side raced across the table as quickly as possible and in the few turns left threw in waves of furious assaults, and the game invariably came down to a couple of die rolls. That is not to say that there weren’t historical battles which played out that way – they just weren’t very engaging games.

Beyond that, if someone goes to the trouble of painting and mounting an army, and brings it to a game, there is an understandable expectation that they will actually be able to play with it, and so leaving a substantial part of it out of the game because of a card draw at the start was unsatisfying. We still included the Prepared Defense deployment, and it is short one wing. We considered eliminating it as well, but kept it for two reasons.

First, since players draw two cards and chose between them, no player will ever be forced to leave a wing off.

Second, we know players who would be perfectly happy to leave a wing off it if enabled them to hunker down and fight a purely defensive battle. To each his own. As for myself, “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!”

OTHER CHANGES FROM THE PREVIOUS EDITION

Here are the big changes in the rules from the previous published edition and the widely distributed playtest version.

Integral Infantry Skirmishers

This is an important change, and allows armies with a lot of skirmishers, or with particularly capable skirmishers, to use them to thicken up their conventional skirmish line by attaching them to brigades. They are so useful in that role that as a practical matter, this is going to be the primary use of skirmishers in the game now, which is a major change. They can still be detached to go take and hold pieces key ground, but that is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. We did this simply because the old rules did not capture the combat advantage that an army with many good skirmishers had over an army with few. This rules does.

Increased Linear Infantry Strength

We increased the non-stationary melee dice for linear infantry stands from 2 to 3. This still gives massed infantry an advantage, but it is less pronounced. The genesis of this rule change was the large number of battles we fought in the playtesting phase between massed and linear armies. In the past, most games we’ve played have been mass-on-mass or linear-on-linear, and combining the two for a lot of games was an eye-opener. Linear infantry could hold its own against massed infantry, but it had effectively no chance of attacking successfully. But a number of the historical battles we looked at involved linear armies acting very aggressively against a massed army, so some re-thinking was called for.

Dispersed Artillery

A lot more artillery which was previously converged into ad hoc battalions has now been spread out as dedicated guns. In fact, the new term dedicated guns replaces the old battalion guns term because it now covers a broader set of tactical cases. Pretty much any time a battery or half-battery is pushed down to direct support of a brigade or regiment, it is considered a dedicated gun. As a result, the British tend to have far fewer separate artillery stands than they once did, and the French often lose them as well.

By the same token, horse artillery battalions are generally broken up and the separate batteries assigned directly to divisions. We have found that this really gives cavalry considerably more punch, and the attached horse guns are useful in a variety of circumstances – one of the most important being the ability to get in and put flanking fire into a unit the cavalry will charge from the front.

Eliminating The Different Scales

The widely distributed playtest rules had several different scales. The 500 man per strength point scale (the principal scale of the game) was called the “regimental” scale, as the typical stand represented about a regiment (or multi-battalion brigade). The next scale down was the battalion scale, then the wing (half-battalion) scale, and finally the division (quarter-battalion) scale, with progressively smaller numbers of troops per strength point.

That approach still has considerable merit, and will appear in later supplements, but we decided that it was a distraction from the core rules. The original design intent was the recreation of large historic battles on a single tabletop, and so the core rules should, and do, remain faithful to that design goal.