The Measure of a Commander

Let’s take a moment to examine measuring movement, and how exact a player needs to be.

The first thing to consider is how exact are the movement rates. They are, after all, based on Kriegspiel movement rates, as determined by officers of the time. I definitely think this makes it a great place to start, but there are two huge areas of “fudginess” that place a limit on how exact those movement rates can be considered to be.

The first is that every foot and every mounted block moves the same. If a block is travelling the same straight path a few turns in a row, then it might be considered to be moving the full 90 minutes of a turn (one movement stick). A similar block might receive new orders. One can imagine the formation commander interpreting the order, issuing new orders to his command, who then might have to react to a complete change of plans, who might need to verify the orders, get their men moving in the new direction, maybe scouting the terrain to determine the best path (more on that in the second point), move to the new location, where they might possibly be involved in combat, which itself requires some further maneuver and giving/interpreting of orders, all that, and they too can move one movement stick in a turn.

The second consideration is the terrain penalties. If a block moves through any terrain that reduces it’s movement, say a grove of trees wider than 1/2 a block, or moves the entire time through woods and over hill and dale, it loses one third. This is not some arbitrary amount, this is how the Kriegspiel rules work. Such an adjustment was considered “close enough.” The terrain itself can be varied. Are there wide paths through the woods, or are they thick and almost impenetrable? How steep is that hill? does it include cliffs, washouts, or large boulders (great for cover, impossible for artillery)? In the grand scheme of things, when you are talking about moving a few thousand men, such variables get handled, and Pub Battles docks the formation a third. That is “close enough.” For everything else, there is the chit draw to determine who might have got where, and who might have outguessed their opponent.

One should be satisfied with “close enough,” because it is a fact of life that the map and blocks are going to get jostled. When I’m moving, I use a divider and walk it out however far it says I can go, and that’s where I move to. If I come to the end of my move and am close enough have interlocking Fields of Fire, I just go ahead and move to contact, or stay out of the FoF. Battlefields are fluid and chaotic, and within reason this allows a little slippage in measurement. How much? Enough to allow smooth play, but not so much as to allow one to game an advantage. Gentlemen’s rules.

The Realism of Pub Battles

You want a realistic system? This is the reality!

Some players feel like Pub Battles is too simplistic. They want more detail. If that’s what they want, then Pub Battles is delivering an authentic experience. Every commander in history has wanted more detail. They hungered for all the intel they could gather. Did they get it? Ha! The more detailed the intel, the more likely its inaccuracies!

The best way to think of Pub Battles and what it is simulating, is to imagine yourself in your command tent, looking over the map that your staff has prepared for you. It has all the latest and best information. Is it accurate? You hope so. Historically, its probably mostly accurate, but it isn’t an exact mirror image.

On top of that, you have people. People who must receive and carry out your directions. Do they understand? Do they think you understand what their situation is? Do you think you understand what the situation is? You’re telling them to take Sharpsburg, but they haven’t even crossed the Antietam, yet! Was this message meant for Hooker’s Corps? How much time is lost while riders scurry back and forth confirming orders?

This is what the chit draw simulates. You can have a good plan, but if the chit draw (chance) doesn’t cooperate, at least a little, you may find your scheme dashed. How you react and respond to what happens is what really makes a good commander.

This is Pub Battles at its core.

Playing Pub Battles

Pub Battles was created as a 2 player Kriegspiel game. The object was to create a system that “reffed” the game. 

Playing Kriegspiel requires no knowledge of the rules, you simply write your orders and are told what happens; the refs handle all the heavy lifting.

This makes it similar to playing a fantasy role playing game like D&D. It is essentially playing D&D, except your character is a military officer, and your “world” is the real world.

A good Kriegspiel referee will throw a wrench in the works, and ruin the best laid plans. Not every time, but often enough, that players learn to expect the unexpected.

Pub Battles does this with the chit draw mechanic, and simple and dramatic combat resolution.

As an army commander (player), your role is big picture. You send out your orders (move your units), and await news from the front (battle results). Formations, weapon ranges, tactical maneuvers, and the like, are all details that you rely on your subordinate officers to handle. Napoleon famously led brilliant campaigns, but let his officers and troops fight the battle.

For a wargame, Pub Battles is very simple. This is because it is command focused, not combat focused. In a combat focused game, details are everything, they are the simulation. In a command focused game, such details are inappropriate for the Army General. They hinder the player’s authentic experience. 

In Pub Battles,  what you see on the map, including the map itself, are approximations at best. Commanders are as desperate to know exactly what’s going on, as they are uncertain what’s actually going on! This is very authentic, and very like playing Kriegspiel. 

Wellington himself, said no one will ever know what actually happened at Waterloo. Everyone, even he himself, was only witness to a small slice of the whole battle.

Command is an exercise in managing chaos and uncertainty. In this respect, Pub Battles is one of the most authentic simulations available.

My Perfect Wargame

I was originally going to call this Post, “What Makes a Perfect Wargame.” It quickly became obvious that is silly. It is different for everyone. So instead, I look for what makes a perfect wargame for me, and if you apply the same metrics, I am curious what would a perfect wargame look like to you? Please let me know in the comments below.

My perfect wargame would start with a military atlas map. You know the kind, simple terrain features with all kinds of rectangles denoting the military units in their positions. For the game, the map would lay out on the table, the pieces would be wooden blocks, and the rules would be pretty straight forward.

I imagine sitting with a friend around a heavy wooden table, talking about the battle and moving our troops, trying out strategies that we think our historical counterparts would have tried. Combat would be resolved with a simple dice roll. The rules would fade almost imperceptibly into the background, as the narrative wills out. There would be no charts, tables, and endless hours spent perusing rulebooks. Just one person shelling the opponent’s line all morning, then unleashing his assault.

My perfect wargame would cover the romantic old world black powder battles. The glorious cavalry charges, the thunderous cannonades, and the thick smoke obscuring everything. Real war is none of those things, but I can imagine it thus, this is my fantasy, after all.

A note on complex rules and realistic simulations. I have played super complex games with layer upon layer of detail. The problem I have with those kinds of games is they leave me feeling removed from the battle, not immersed in it. Every time I have to stop and consult a table, or check a rule, it takes me out of the simulation. It becomes less enjoyable. The trick–the art, of wargame design, is to make it feel as authentic as possible, it is not as simple as making it super detailed.

The closest I have ever found to this is Pub Battles.

Leader Casualties


It has been an oft requested feature to simulate leader casualties. Ultimately, in the big picture of things, leader casualties rarely had an effect on the immediate battle. Sometimes a high level leader could effect the army, such as the loss of Stonewall Jackson, but that was the exception, not the rule.

In Pub Battles we have come up with an optional way to simulate this, that I think is pretty fun. I don’t know if I’d call it “realistic,” but if the point is to have fun, no harm is done.

To involve a leader(HQ) directly in combat, simply place it on top of a block that is adjacent to the enemy. That block now adds one to its combat rolls, but if the enemy rolls a six in combat, then there is a chance the HQ gets eliminated. For each hit suffered in a round, roll a die, if a 1 is rolled, the HQ is removed.

Note that removing the HQ still allows the chit to be drawn, and the Corps to move, but they now can only attack if the Army commander is within command range. Obviously, they cannot roll to alter turn order either.

This usually has a subtle effect on the army, just like a leader loss should. One Corps leader lost can be reasonably accommodated for, but if you lose two or more, it can be a problem. It also gives the occasional extra leader (like Blucher at Waterloo) a purpose beyond providing additional combat command. It makes me want to add a Ney block at Waterloo!

While there are plenty of good reasons to add this rule to the game, I’m not sure it is something I will use much. My guiding principle is “Does the game work without it?” If the answer is yes, then it is followed up with “Is it significantly improved by this addition? Baggage Trains passed both the hurdles with flying colors. I’m not yet convinced that this, or any, Leader Casualty rule, does.

In my last game of Waterloo, it did play a significant role. The British Bags were exposed and the Guard was fixed to assault. Picton drove off the first attempt, and fell in the effort, and Uxbridge with the Household Cavalry held off versus two blocks of Guards Cavalry charging, and two blocks of II Corps infantry in the combat phase. Very exciting, very dramatic final turn.

Here is the video:

Pub Battles Victory Conditions

Victory Conditions are one of the toughest things to develop in wargaming. Do you base it on what historical commanders’ objectives? Should players be tied to what their historical counterparts objectives, which may have changed during the battle? Gettysburg was fought because that’s where Gettysburg was, but after day 1, it was nothing more than geographical point of reference. It certainly didn’t figure into the combatant’s strategy.

I like Pub Battles use of Baggage Trains. It lets the players themselves decide where the key victory locations are going to be. What about losing valuable units? We on the design team have been asked to consider how this might be addressed. At its simplest, we all agree that it should be something that players can discuss over a few pints after the game. History is still trying to decide, and redefine, who won any given battle. It is a lot more complicated a thing than is first apparent.

My personal opinion is that it should be somewhat blended between points and conditions. It should be obvious so folks know what they’re fighting for, yet allow for shades of differences. When does a victory become too pyrrhic?

I have proposed this:

Decisive. 50% Infantry losses or, contacting an enemy Baggage Train at the beginning of a combat phase. Rout.

Moderate. If the enemy packs up an unpacked Baggage Train. Forced Back.

Most Victory Points. If none of the above conditions are met by the end of the game, then add up points for enemy units destroyed.

Without the victory point option, there is no reason not to sacrifice cavalry and artillery units to save infantry units. With the victory point option, sacrificing those valuable units only becomes worth it if the win is secured by forcing the enemy to forfeit the field of battle. If it were only points, then defense becomes supreme. It takes experience to gain a feel for what is worth it.

The other great reason for this solution is it allows a metric for determining a victor in tournaments, where a definite winner is necessary. In “friendly” games, if no clear winner is decided by the first two means, then the points remain for bragging rights, but like many of history’s battles, the winner may be forever a matter of opinion.

What do you think?

Combat in Pub Battles

I’m sure you’ve heard, and probably thought, that combat in Pub Battles is really simplified. I have been guilty of that, too. However, under analysis, it doesn’t hold up.

I think part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that Pub Battles blocks look like they should be regiments, or the unit names on them make you think that the specific divisional unit named is the actual unit represented. Both are false. Divisions did tend to cover an area with the same general geometric outline as a regiment. The names on the labels are purely for color.

First off, what does a Pub Battles block actually represent? It actually represents from 4,000-6,000 men, more or less. A Corps that numbers ~20,000 men will have around 5 blocks, maybe more for nimble, well organized units, less for awkward, poorly organized units. Numbers are half that for cavalry. It will also possess artillery, including battalion guns (equivalent to modern day heavy weapons battalions). Many formations within the block will be light troops, and maybe even grenadiers to stiffen the line.

Typically, when two regiments closed, fighting began with a ranged duel between the light troops at a few hundred yards, one side drove back the light troops of the other, and then began picking off the main line troops. At this point, those troops not liking getting picked off, charged, or retreated.

That detail is not simulated by Pub Battles. In Pub Battles, when two blocks close, it begins at an area around a half mile square, within that half mile, Brigades and Regiments are maneuvering and jockeying for local advantage. Artillery is being brought up, harassing their opponents. All of this is resolved with a dice roll and a couple of modifiers. When playing, you can happily dream up what may have happened.

If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of small formation combat, there are numerous excellent titles. I myself, have enjoyed them, but to play an actual large battle at that level is exhaustive, and really not accurate to the feel of the whole battle. No one experienced every small combat, and every grand tactical decision, in any battle of size. So, we must choose.

I happen to enjoy Pub Battles, and feeling like I’m commanding a whole army, and enjoying the full sweep of a battle, in a pleasant couple of hours.

How do you feel about Pub Battles level of simulation?

New Rules on the discussion board (in playtesting)

Marshall Barrington, the system’s designer, has been reviewing the original Kriegspiel rules for his new book on Kriegspiel for modern audiences.

Although Pub Battles emulates Kriegspiel, it does not mirror it. Pub Battles creates a way to play Kriegspiel without an umpire, and focuses even more on command. Most of the Kriegspiel rules are a GM’s guide to running a Kriegspiel battle. Playing Kriegspiel is fun and easy. Running Kriegspiel is daunting.

However, Marshall has garnered some nuggets of wisdom from the original designers of Kriegspiel, things about how combat really went down on a 19 century battlefield. They fought in the Napoleonic era, they didn’t have to rely on other’s accounts.

There are many things that Pub Battles glosses over because the blocks represent divisions. In a sense, it is most accurate to compare Pub Battles to a divisional hex and counter wargame. The blocks tend to make one think of regimental level units, but that is inaccurate! The labels on the blocks tend to make one assume that is the exact unit represented, that is also inaccurate. The labels add color and drama, but that is all. Each block represents between 1000+ to 7000+ men (half that for cavalry). That’s a lot of wiggle room! When designing a Pub Battles scenario, the critical issue is what feels right, not what exactly is there.

Cavalry has never felt quite right to me. Cavalry was to 19th century armies what armor was to WWII armies, but it didn’t feel that way in Pub Battles. With all that in mind, these rules are under consideration:

  1. Any block may retreat before the first round of combat from an infantry block without becoming spent.

2. Foot (infantry or artillery) that is required to retreat from Mounted is eliminated instead.

3. Artillery rule that was here has been discarded.

Note that dragoons can/will be handled differently. As with any cavalry rules, you always want to read scenario special rules.

As always, the focus is on keeping Pub Battles a fast playing, smooth, command focused, simulation.

1 Hit Wonders: Experimental Pub Battles

Marshall Barrington, the Pub Battle system’s designer, was studying the Kriegspiel rules, and came up with a variation for resolving Pub Battles Combat. Rather than becoming spent on the first hit, a block retreats. With a second hit it is reduced to spent. All this means is that the hit process is reversed; Retreat then spent, instead of spent then retreat. If a fresh unit retreats, it maintains its facing.

This is a relatively subtle change, and yet it can have profound effects. The Baggage Train rules make becoming spent more of an issue, because the unit doesn’t automatically rally, it now needs an unpacked Baggage Train.

After giving it some thought, I decided it would be more interesting to let players decide whether or not the unit would hold or retreat. So, when you receive a hit you decide whether to hold your ground and become spent, or to voluntarily retreat in good order.

A key concept at this point is the voluntary retreat, which I will call “Fall Back.” The difference is that if you retreat, you turn 180 degrees and face the other way. If you Fall Back, you retreat, but maintain your same facing.

One additional rule I want to add, is that if you have been contacted by the enemy prior to your chit being drawn, you must either remain in combat (you can turn to face), or Fall Back. You can no longer move any way you want. The reason being, if you are there to block the enemy’s movement, then you are affecting them, which means you must have been there when they moved. You are still preventing them from moving, and you are successfully Falling Back (fighting retreat) without them forcing a decisive combat.

In this case, moving after your opponent can be thought of as having the command initiative. You have anticipated your opponent’s intentions. The combat is occurring on your terms.

Experimental Rule: First Hit

Retreat: Involuntary movement from combat, if fresh, become spent, and turn around moving 1/3 away from enemy.
Fall Back: Voluntary movement from combat, maintain facing and move 1/3 from enemy.

If you are in contact with an enemy block when your chit is drawn, you must either remain in contact, or Fall Back.

A fresh block that receives only one hit in combat must flip to spent and remain in place, or Fall Back. If fresh, don’t become spent. If spent, You must Fall Back, but maintain facing.

A fresh block that receives receive two hits must Retreat and becomes spent. A spent block that receives two hits is eliminated.

Movement before combat:
Any fresh unit may Retreat before combat, except fresh Dragoons in contact with infantry, may Fall Back.

I am going to try these rules in my next game. One of my purposes in writing this blog is to put all my thoughts in writing. I intend to find out if it is too fiddley to be worth the effort, or if it makes for a better experience.

What do you think of this new rule?