May 24, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Staffs & Subordinate HQs

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:

At the operational level and above, your subordinate units have HQs that include a significant number of staff officers. How do/should those staff actions get modeled at subordinate levels? What should we expect to see from them? How do you introduce an appropriate amount of variability in their capabilities without bolting on chrome for its own sake?

Mike Bennighof, President / Avalanche Press –  holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published many hundreds of books, games and articles on historical subjects.

If they’re subordinate headquarters, I prefer to see very little from them. If the player’s an army commander, he or she isn’t issuing orders to the 1st Division’s regiments. Not all of those regiments might obey, given the efficiency of the subordinate headquarters, but that should be out of the player’s hands so I prefer for it to be handled simply and swiftly, so the player can concentrate on his or her actual job.


Chris Weuve, wargame practitioner, futuristic warfare consultant, occasional YouTube star

Um, it depends? No really – it depends on what you are trying to do, and what level of complexity you are willing to do in order to represent it. The game should be as realistic as it can be for its level of complexity and for the end goal in mind. There is no use adding such chrome to Tactics II, because that’s not what that game is for. You can’t make a wargame more realistic by making one thing hyper-realistic and having everything else be order of magnitude approximations.

As a quick approximation, you can average elements likely to cause friction and have them subsumed into firepower and movement scores, perhaps modified on a per-unit basis.


David Freer, designer / JTS Simulations

Having worked with the John Tiller Software and prior to that Strategic Study Group (SSG), I have seen how computer simulations have allowed a more detailed examination of command and control via headquarters. The major focus has been to confer bonuses and recovery from unto events if subordinate units are within a defined command range. Units can be penalised if beyond that range and this can become a particularly useful function to model various situations. John Tiller’s First World War Campaigns does a great job of hamstringing the large Russian armies that fought in East Prussia by reducing their headquarters command range to a point that its impossible to keep all units under command during any major deployment or assault. This makes any advance ponderous and bringing large forces to bear much more difficult – as it was in the actual campaign.

The use of subordinate headquarters also allows a level of independence for applicable formations. In John Tiller’s Battles of North Africa 1941, we both added additional subordinate headquarters and increased their command ranges to reflect the distances units fought over. Units became accustomed to longer periods of movement to contact and navigation in an almost featureless desert and that was reflected in the title by allowing units to travel further away from their parent formations than in other titles.

The variability in capabilities has been modelled with a morale/experience rating where better headquarters/commanders will both impact their troops more positively as well have an extended command range. Poor commanders will reduce all these base capabilities impacting the abilities of their subsidiary units.


COL Eric Walters (R), USMC, wargame practitioner (and legendary game hoarder!)

I’m not sure too many wargamers are all that interested in modeling those staff actions beyond generalized depictions of functions that they coordinate: maneuver, fires, sustainment/logistics, intelligence, command and control, protection, and so forth. I’ve served as a professional staff officer in the Marine Corps for a quarter century and I don’t even have an interest in modeling them! That said, I am interested in how command and control is simulated as a whole, especially on a comparative basis. That is, how do advantages of one side over the other translate into game mechanics. This is a different question than the one you are asking, however.


Kim Kanger, game designer / Legion Games (mostly!)

Operation points


Paul Rohrbaugh, game designer / High Flying Dice Games

I very much take a “design for effect” and try to keep things as simple and straight forward as possible. I’m also not into very convoluted command rules; preferring to put as much of the decision making process into the hands of the players and not the rules. The role the game player(s) take, and the historical focus of the narrative are paramount. If there are “layers” to the command and decision making process then those need to be portrayed, but not in a way that scripts the game’s play and renders the game’s key decision points overly subject to chance or who can out “rules lawyer” their opponent.


Jim Werbaneth, game designer & magazine publisher / Line of Departure

I integrate this into unit quality in my designs. My first wargame design, Inchon (Command magazine), rates units separately for raw combat power, and then for “soft” factors, such as training, cohesion, flexibility, and leadership. Staff competence and training certainly fits into that second qualitative variable, without the players even noticing. I have a couple of more games in my files using this approach, Frozen Chosin and Marianas Campaign, but they haven’t been published.


Jeff Horger, game designer / Laboratory H

So that varies with the game style and even more with the game era. This is kind of the holy grail of operational and strategic games. I’ve seen a lot of different methods for this but getting the balance right between a center point for its subordinate units, a supply center, the varying skills of the staff and providing special abilities is so very difficult. My favorite implementation of this was in Richard Berg’s Great Battles series.
Maybe someday, I’ll take up that challenge but for me, I tend to treat my work as more game than simulation, so I generally do not rely much on subordinate command units and allow players to “play the game”. Yes they have complete control, but that doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of games from History of the World to Puerto Rico to Terraforming Mars. So why stifle players with random or enforced handicaps?


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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