July 18, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Military Doctrine on the Tabletop

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.
You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

This week’s question:
Should games enforce historically accurate battle tactics and doctrine, or should they allow players to use ahistorical methods in the name of game-play and “what if” theories? Do you allow the French and Spanish fleet to turn into and meet the British at the Battle of Trafalgar (thereby preventing the Brits from “cutting the line”)? Must Napoleon’s Infantry close on the enemy in an assault column formation, or can they deploy into firing lines?

Jeff Horger ~ Game Designer / Owner, Labaratory H

In my opinion, there is no should here. That is sort of like saying all movies must be documentaries. I admire the designers that want to provide the players with what is essentially a history lesson, I have played many of these tactile, immersive historical battles over the years and learned in-action the things that I had read about in books. Those a-ha moments of just how something you learned works in action. But all movies are not documentaries, some are just fiction, others are comedy or horror or summer blockbusters. Games are like that too. As a designer, I would rather back things up a day, a week, a year and give players the tools their counterparts had in front of them but allow them to pick their tactics, their ground, and their goals. In my opinion there is room for all and I’m happy to do my part to provide non-standard options.


Brian Train ~ Game Designer / Game Theorist

Depends on the designer’s intent. A designer who’s done their research and wants to impart that knowledge via a game to their players will likely give the game mechanics that reflect the tactics and doctrine in use at the time, or build up their model with those tactics and doctrine baked in, in places the players aren’t likely to have to exercise it. Other designers are interested in alternatives, or not that interested in trammeling their players so much, so will leave things up to the players (and maybe, via scenarios, show how the historical setup went). But even games that are supposedly accurate to the period do slip up… I seem to recall (and I am sure that someone will correct me if I am wrong) that the old SPI game Wellington’s Victory made it possible and preferable to take your infantry units to pieces and make a huge cloud of skirmishers, limited only by the number of counters in the sheet, that would overwhelm any opponent… something wildly ahistorical, for that or any other time.

These are historical settings. Wargames also give us a place to play with current and future doctrine, and again you can have a rigid stance and test just the way the doctrine of the moment might go, or throw it wide open. In either case a designer should be prepared to defend their choices.


David Ensteness ~ Designer/Owner, The Wargaming Company

This is really a question that needs to be grounded in scope and scale. Designers, and hopefully through them players, need to understand what are decision points of commanders and what are methods of operation which aren’t practically subjectable to ad-hoc change. French infantry of the Napoleonic Wars had a very similar ‘doctrine’ (they didn’t use that word, it wasn’t a thing yet, but effectively the equivalent standard practice) never closed in ‘assault columns’ – an assault column is something made up by game designers who wanted to have a term easy for players to understand. The French maneuvered in columns of divisions or columns of companies and traveled long distances in columns of route. All of these start to feel pretty esoteric to the player though, so game designers decided to just call something a ‘column’ or a ‘line’ and forget the rest. Some were willing to be a little more detailed to provide ‘assault columns’ or ‘attack columns’ as well as ‘march columns’. None of these are actually “things” in the French Napoleonic army though and this is where we connect back to the question from our bird walk.

‘Assault column’ makes a player think it is a column meant to be used to assault. This drives how the player plays, the tactics they use. But, this doesn’t drive a very clear understanding of the period tactics as the French more commonly maneuvered in a column of divisions (confused by designers and players alike with the nebulous and fictional “assault column”), deployed from that column of divisions into line, and then attempted to close to contact. Lots of detail irrelevant to the question explains the why’s and how’s of this, so I’m going to skip that and tie back into our question’s narrower scope – Who makes what decision?

This is a scope of game question: Are we playing a skirmish game where the player has the perspective of a junior officer commanding, they should have a lot of flexibility in ordering men to do this or that – but you aren’t going to teach a soldier a different method of loading his musket during the battle. When you raise the scope of the game up to the player making decisions about commanding a battalion, the player can certainly control the formations, but should still be limited to the formations the soldiers of that battalion know how to form. The player can’t teach their battalion to spell out letters on the battlefield while under fire: “OK, everyone form the battalion in an ’S’ shape, go!”… and nor can they order the battalion to form any formation that it has not trained to do. Could the French change between a column of divisions and a line? Yes, when they do so is a decision point for a commander, so if the designer sets the player up to address that level of decision, it is clearly fair game. However, if we’re talking about the dependencies themselves – i.e. let’s form a letter ’S’, the company officers and NCOs are going to be confused and incapable of performing the task, so those are, in the scheme of the game, literally impossible tasks.

Use of skirmishers in horse and musket wargames is a very good example of this quandary. Does X army in Y period have command and control methods implemented to perform skirmishing, and in what way to what extent? Those should be questions the designer is digging way down into so the player only has to deal with the output. But the designer should also beware: If I design X mechanic and it isn’t meant to be a stand in for modeling Y, but it can be made to work that way… unintended consequence, I just allowed horse & musket era artillery to behave like a WW2 Sherman tank platoon… that’s a problem, because it isn’t that they didn’t choose to do that but were capable of it, it is that they didn’t do it because they didn’t have the capacity.

Keeping that line clear is… well, difficult, but that’s because most of us designers want to incorporate too much in our games: capacity vs decision.


Dr. Mike Benninghof, PhD ~ Founder/Owner & Designer, Avalanche Press

People of the past can be so culturally different as to be aliens to us, but they weren’t any more stupid than we are in 2020 (granted, we are, as a species, pretty damned stupid). If the Spanish and French fleets did not turn to meet the British, was this simply because some gamer is tremendously smarter and more adept than Villeneuve and Gravina? Or was there some reason that they could not and did not maneuver their fleets otherwise?

If you’ve done your homework, then you know the answer to that question, and it will be reflected in your game. The Franco-Spanish player will operate the Franco-Spanish fleet of 1805 and not the American Third Fleet of 1944.

If you have to write rules to “enforce historically accurate battle tactics,” then your model is fundamentally flawed.


Peter Bogdasarian ~ Game Designer

I think this question conflates decision-making and doctrine and it is important to unwind the two before discussing the possibilities available to a designer.

When it comes to decision-making, the designer needs to decide the point at which the player(s) begin to input information into the simulation. The tension is often greatest at the grand tactical level, where decisions made well in advance of the battle can have an enormous impact on how it is fought. Take the example of the battle of Brandywine, where the British left a holding force to fix the Americans in place while marching the bulk of their forces to execute a flank attack. If the designer’s intent is to replicate the confusion and experience of fighting the historical battle, then they may want to constrain the options for the American player by fixing forces in place until some other criteria is met. However, there are equally valid grounds for a designer to expand a situation where Washington possesses the freedom to ensure an adequate defense along the Brandywine and for Howe, in turn, to explore other options.

When it comes to how battles are fought, departures from the historical foundations raise the risk of damaging the suspension of disbelief, which is an important component of the experience of playing a wargame – the belief that what you are doing is evocative of history. A designer who wants to explore a battle fought with different tactics is going to want to do more heavy lifting in his designer’s notes to explain the foundations for his departures. Taking the example of the Napoleonic Wars, the French made heavy use of skirmishers and a designer might make the argument that his design is founded on the belief that this, rather than the column formation, is what provided the French with a tactical advantage over most Continental armies.


Jim Webaneth ~ Game Designer / Publisher, Line of Departure

In a word, yes, but with limits. Going back to France 40 (Avalon Hill), “idiot plans” have been a part of wargaming. However, forcing a player to do the same dumb stuff as their historical counterparts is not a good idea, making for predictable games, and impeding players from learning more. Rather, it’s a better idea to give the players a set of plausible options based on the doctrines and technologies of the time, place and combatants. When I designed Inchon (Command magazine) thirty years ago, the developer, Paul Dangel, taught me something important. He said that instead of telling a player what to do, give them reasons to do it through the design, and also reasons that he might want to try something else.

For my part, I don’t want to give the players too much freedom, to choose a really anachronistic or out of character set of options. For example, in a Napoleonic tactical game, neither side should be able to pick tactics from the playbook of Emery Upton. Nor should total war, as practiced by William T. Sherman or Bomber Harris, be an option in a strategic game of the Seven Years War in Europe. Still, in a Seven Years War game set in North America, aka the French and Indian War, the French player especially should be allowed and even encouraged to choose between the conventional, European style of warfare, as practiced by Montcalm and Braddock, and the irregular, raiding style, traditional to New France and its Indian allies.


Anthony Gallela ~ Game Designer / Convention Founder

As the memes say, “Why not both?” Both styles serve to examine history from different angles — and both angles are usuful to understaning history, stategy, and tactics. Plus, both are fun.


Devin Heinle ~ The OG / Game Designer, LNLP

Historic tactics and accurate battlefield conditions should be modeled but players should be able to use these conditions to do what they wish on the battlefield. We are all basically ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ and want to play out the way we think things could have gone and use our own tactics in it.


Steve Overton ~ Game & Scenario Designer

It depends on the scale and goals of the game.


Byron Collins ~ Fonder/Owner & Designer, Collins Epic Wargames

No… Let players do whatever they want within the rules of the game. If the goal is to attempt to simulate some battle or action, then go for that, but why try to recreate every decision that was made? Do you think Napoleon would do the exact same thing again- or would he want to explore what else he could have done?


COL Eric Walters, USMC (R) ~ DoD Wargaming Practitioner

So much depends on what you want out of your games when you play. I confess to being a historian-gamer, so I tend to favor games that aim to replicate some aspects of the historical situation and approaches of the opposing sides. But I also enjoy it when games provide variants/alternatives or are designed to allow history to “run off the rails” so that the game isn’t scripted or otherwise strait-jacketed to approximate the historical outcome.

I’ll just mention two game series that I think do a reasonable job of allowing such explorations without anything extra (e.g., game magazine published variants, etc.) other than what comes in the box. Both deal with Napoleonic battles at a grand tactical level.

Hexasim’s “Eagles” series of games (Waterloo, 1815: Fallen Eagles (2015), Ligny, 1815: Last Eagles (2017), Quatre Bras, 1815: Last Eagles (2019) contain the usual treatment of historical battles you’d expect, plus some innovative alternatives for those that want something different. Particulary valued are the combinations of options both the French and the Coalition players can execute when combining the Ligny and Quatre Bras games, which go a long way in putting them into the proper mindset of their historical counterparts. Will D’Erlon’s Corps show up in either battle? Might Bulow’s Corps make it to the Battle of Ligny?

Kevin Zucker’s Library of Napoleonic Battles series of games not only use cardplay to provide variations to the historical battle scenarios, but there are what is termed “Approach to Battle” scenarios that start some time before the historical battle date. This allows players to decide where and when to stage the clash of arms and where their offensive and defensive main efforts will be.

For strategic games, allowing wide divergence from what actually occurred seems to be obligatory, particularly in World War II games. I can recall that happening nearly every time playing SPI’s creaky 1975 Global War game; these days I never expect a game of Cataclysm (GMT, 2018), Axis Empires series (Decision Games), John Prados’ Third Reich (Avalanche Press, 2001), or A World At War (GMT, 2003), and—of course—World In Flames (Panther Games, various editions/years) to even generally follow what historically happened when it happened!

And then there is that genre of alternative history that seems to have its own following, witness Gregory Smith’s solitaire game Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (Compass Games, 2020)! Especially for those who are familiar with his other air warfare solitaire games, Nightfighter Ace (Compass Games, 2018) and Interceptor Ace (Compass Games, 2019), this is practically irresistible! Avalanche Press must be making a small fortune with all the alternative history variants they publish for their Panzer Grenadier series and Great War at Sea series of games! Talk about “what if” theories!

Quite honestly, isn’t this what so many of us wargamers want? Avalon Hill game copy on their game boxes promised that the players could take command and change history! Why not do EXACTLY that?


Note: we are aware that this entire panel is made up of men.  We’ve reached out to multiple female designers, as well as the Women’s Wargaming Network that was brought together at Connections US this year.  To date, we’ve not heard back from anyone, even after holding the restart of this column for 3 weeks to allow for response time.

We appreciate you visiting the Armchair Dragoons!
Please join the discussion in our discussion forum, or in the comment area below.

We can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and once the plague subsides, perhaps at a convention near you.

Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

2 thoughts on “Design x Dragoons: Military Doctrine on the Tabletop

    1. That’s a very good read. Anyone seeing these comments is advised to click over to Alan’s blog and read that post, stat!

Tell us what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: