October 21, 2021

#TBT – A Grognard Looks Back at TACTICS II After 40 Years a Wargamer

RockyMountainNavy, 12 August 2021

Of all the Christmas’ growing up, one I remember very clearly is 1979. That was the year I got my first wargame, Panzer: A Game of Tactical Armored Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 designed by Jim Day and published by Yaquinto. It was the start of a lifelong hobby for me. Over the years I added many wargames to my collection, but I usually added new games—older games were the past and, after all, I was a modern wargamer! As I grow older I am becoming a bit nostalgic for the roots of our hobby. Thus, when I got a chance to trade for a copy of one of the original wargame titles, TACTICS II, I jumped at it. Join me as I explore this game for the first time.

What I Expected

Like so many other government and corporate drones these days, I had to take my “Mitigating Unconscious Bias” training recently. They teach that one always needs to be aware of their own biases and actively work against them. When I first thought of TACTICS II, I actually expected a poorly produced strategy boardgame that has elements—glimpses if you will—of a modern wargame (“modern” being very imprecisely defined in my mind as refined game mechanics). In TACTICS II, I expected to see distant roots of a wargame and a very incomplete package with rules more akin to Stratego than Advanced Squad Leader. Instead, I am (very pleasantly) astounded to discover that TACTICS II is pretty much a “complete wargame”—the only “modern” game element missing is using hexes for the board. It is a real tribute to the work of Charles S. Roberts that this very early wargame can stand next to today’s products and not be seen as “quaint.” Indeed, after looking closely at TACTICS II, my opinion is that we under appreciate the early pioneers in our hobby and, in our seemingly endless worship at the Cult of the New, we miss (older) gems right in front of us.

Realistic War Game

TACTICS was designed by Charles S. Roberts and first published by The Avalon Hill Game Company in 1954. A second edition, TACTICS II, was published in 1958 and again in 1961 with a major update in 1973. My copy is that 1973 edition.

It is generally accepted that TACTICS (1954) was the first commercial board wargame. Yes, Fred Jane published his How to Play the Naval War Game in 1898 and H.G. Wells himself published his rules Little Wars in 1913, but those were for miniatures. Of the two editions of TACTICS, the second edition TACTICS II was certainly the greater seller.

TACTICS II comes in a 14 3/8” x 11 1/2” x 1 1/2” flat box. All the cover art is on the cover—the box bottom has no art content. Unlike many boardgames of that day, the rules are (fortunately) NOT printed inside the box lid!

The publisher’s blurb on the cover of TACTICS II is very interesting. Some highlights:

    • “…designed to introduce newcomers to the fasted growing hobby today – simulation gaming!”
    • “TACTICS II contains no chance cards, spinners, or random luck elements.”
    • “military chess pieces representing modern Divisions of Infantry, Armor, Airborne, and Special Forces Units.”
    • “Combat Results Table geared to produce results as they would occur in real life.”
    • “Begin a Lifetime of Pleasure! Begin with TACTICS II”

Maybe the most interesting (esoteric?) print on the box is actually on the side panel where it proclaims, “TACTICS II REALISTIC WAR GAME.” Later in the Rules of Play Manual the word used is “wargame.” As I was looking at TACTICS II, I was secretly hoping that maybe, just maybe, one of the oldest arguments in wargaming over “one word or two” could be settled but noooooo.

Insights from the Rules of Play

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TACTICS II – Rule Book

The Rules of Play Manual for TACTICS II is a relatively short 16 pages in a digest-sized booklet. Most of the rule book is formatted in double column and the font is a bit small. I have to remind myself that this large a rule book was certainly the exception for the day as most boardgames of that time still came with the instructions printed inside the box lid!

The first paragraph of the TACTICS II rule book lays out the game. Here we are told there are three “versions;” a Basic Game, Advanced Game, and Optional Rules. It’s great to see that, from the beginning, the basic format of wargame rules was already established by 1973. The rule book states that TACTICS II can be learned in a mere 10 minutes.

Fame and Wargames

Interestingly, the pre-introduction material for TACTICS II also talks about advisors. Specifically, part four of the rule book, “Military Tactics & Strategy” had some major advice:

“It is a compendium of the “do’s and don’t’s” on how to run a war, gleaned from the expertise of Avalon Hill’s Technical Advisory Staff. The staff includes Rear Admiral C. Wade McClusky, hero of the Battle of Midway; General Anthony C. McAuliffe, whose reply of “nuts” to the German surrender demand at Bastonge is legendary; and Colonel Donald L. Dickson of Guadalcanal fame and more recently editor & publisher of Leathernecks Magazine.”

I never realized that Avalon Hill had a Technical Advisory Staff, nor did I realize it had members as illustrious as these fine gentlemen. Now I need to go back and look at early Avalon Hill titles like Midway (1964) or Battle of the Bulge (1965) and, of course, Guadalcanal (1966). The BoardGameGeek entry for Midway does say, “Developed with the technical aid of C. Wade McClusky, Rear Admiral U.S.N. (Ret.).” while the Battle of the Bulge likewise states, “Developed with the technical aid of General Anthony C. McAuliffe, U.S.A. (Ret.).” I never noticed that before and wonder what “technical aid” they both added to the game?

Looking back at Guadalcanal, the story becomes even more interesting. Donald Lester Dickson is listed as the Artist for Guadalcanal and he was known for other art work made during the battle and later to commemorate it. Taken as a whole, this knowledge of the Technical Advisory Staff and their contributions to the early games make me eager to look back and explore these older titles to see if I can find the story those who were there are trying to tell me.

“TACTICS II IS A WARGAME”

The introduction for TACTICS II also is very much like what grognards have come to expect over the years. Here is the seemingly obligatory explanation of “What is a wargame?” TACTICS II leans heavily into the chess comparisons and claims of “realism:”

“Perhaps the older known wargame is CHESS. In chess, each side attempts to win by eliminating the other side’s pieces and capturing the king. The same thing is true for TACTICS II with some very important differences. Unlike chess, TACTICS II is realistic instead of abstract. Instead of moving just one piece per turn, as in chess, each side is capable of moving its whole army in one turn. Whereas in chess, opponent’s pieces are simply “taken,” TACTICS II incorporates a unique system of resolving attacks that reflects what really happens in a real-life battlefield. Finally, like chess, TACTICS II requires the use of STRATEGY to win. The only element of chance present in the game is that which reflects the real-life uncertainties involved in battle.”

Although the rule book for TACTICS II starts off by claiming rules can be learned in 10 minutes, the introduction also has this passage:

“IF YOU HAVE NEVER PLAYED A WARGAME BEFORE, don’t be overwhelmed by what looks like a lot of rules. Sometimes more than a few words are required to express a simple an easily understood concept. To begin play, one only needs to learn the Basic Game rules.”

When I read this disclaimer in the rule book of TACTICS II I have to laugh because Avalon Hill had yet to adopt the “SPI-format” of rule books with its 1.0-1.1-1.11 paragraph numbering scheme. With TACTICS II, C.S. Roberts is clearly attempting to use a “conversational” approach to explaining rules—an approach that Avalon Hill would abandon by the mid-1970s in favor of the SPI-format (though some game companies like Game Designers’ Workshop—GDW—would try to keep using the conversational approach into the 1980’s). Today we still have this same controversy as to the best way to write rules; conversationally or lawyerly. Cole Wehrle in Root (Leder Games, 2018) actually goes full circle and gives us two rule books with one in each style.

Is This Like Chess?

The Basic Game in TACTICS II is presented over five pages and is written in a dialog-like manner. The author keeps with the chess analogy and uses an interrogative (Socratic?) approach to headings. Examples include, “How Does the Game Play?”” and “How Do You Move Units?” More recently, designer Jerry White used a similar heading question approach in his wargame Atlantic Chase (GMT Games, 2020). More than one commentator-reviewer saw this approach in a very positive manner and a few even went so far as to commend Jerry on his innovative approach. I’m not trying to take anything away from Jerry and Atlantic Chase but hey, the use of question headers may be unusual but Jerry’s use was really long from the first.

“The Mapboard – Your “Chessboard”

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TACTICS II – No hexes!

For longtime Grognards the mapboard in TACTICS II can be disconcerting. That’s because there are no hexes here—it’s all squares. I have read stories that the designer of TACTICS II, the great Charles S. Roberts, did not start using hexes until after a visit to RAND in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s where he saw some maps with hexes. What is clear is that early Avalon Hill Games like Gettysburg (1958) and TACTICS II used squares. It is generally recognized that the 1961 edition of D-Day by Avalon Hill was the first “hex and counter” wargame.

“Unit Counters – Your “Chessmen”

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TACTICS II Counters – Simple

TACTICS II uses small die-cut counters, not blocks like Gettysburg (1958) or any of the more modern Columbia or Worthington Game products. What I find fascinating is that even at this early stage the NATO Standard markings were already being adopted. Given the printing capabilities of the day I am not surprised that this easy to read, easy to print version of unit markings was adopted.

While I am comfortable with NATO symbology in TACTICS II, I know some are not. They often prefer icons or “realistic” symbology. I feel that C.S. Roberts chose to use NATO symbols in part because he marketed TACTICS II as a “realistic” wargame that was supposed to look like a command post table. I personally have always found games that use NATO symbology to be portrayed as more “realistic” which is really funny because the wargame most often derided for its “realism,” Advanced Squad Leader—ASL (Avalon Hill/Multi-Man Publishing), does NOT use NATO symbology.

Units in TACTICS II are rated by combat and movement. Again, the basic elements of a wargame counter is present. There is no guide or hints given as to how the factors were derived. The units in the game are actually rather plain with Infantry rated 1-5 and Armor 2-7 with both sides units having identical ratings. No asymmetric powers here!

When I look at TACTICS II with my 21st century mindset, I see a game that would (barely) pass as a “professional” publishing effort. I mean, the map is mounted but the rule book is poorly laid out, the color palate too plain, and the counters thin and (again) not colorblind friendly. If you look closely, you will see a streak in the counters; I’m not sure if that is an artifact of age or publication but I am sure that today’s Grognards would absolutely crucify any wargame publisher that “dares” to release this “obviously flawed” product into market. TACTICS II is a good reminder of just how far game publishing has come in 60 years.

“How Does the Game Play?”

TACTICS II uses the bog-standard “IGO-UGO” turn sequence with each player alternatively executing movement followed by combat. Victory Conditions in TACTICS II are very straight-forward but not called out by that term. In TACTICS II the “OBJECT” of the game is to capture opponents cities or destroy all their units.

“How Do You Start Playing the Game?”

The term “set up” is not found in TACTICS II although this section effectively cover that action. The term “initiative” is also not used in the rules for TACTICS II. The closest one gets to an initiative rule is in this section where it directs, “Players may either roll a die, or agree ahead of time as to who moves first.”

“How Do You Move Units?”

After 40+ years it’s easy to overlook some of the simple, yet radical, differences a game like TACTICS II brought to the gaming market. Before TACTICS II, a game that allowed you to move some, all, or even none of your pieces was the exception, not the rule. When you did move, you often had to use a chance device like a spinner or cards or a roll of the die to see how much you could move. Thus, the first two movement rules are easy to laugh at today, but when taken in context with the time they were written are actually quite radical:

“1) In any turn, you may move none, some, or all of your units.

2) Movement is VOLUNTARY; unlike chess or checkers, you are not forced to move your units.”

IMG 2140-1Even the next rule which stated a unit can move some, none, or all of its movement factor was spelled out. Further, in what I guess was an early attempt to keep rules lawyers from ruing a game, players were expressly forbidden to transfer movement factors between units nor was the “non-phasing player” (a term not used in the game but understood these days) allowed to move.

Diagonal movement is allowed in TACTICS II. Of course, we all now understand that eventually the hex was adopted because the distance to any adjacent hex was always the same whereas a diagonal square move was “longer” than moving to an edge square.

TACTICS II does not explicitly have a “stacking” rule but the rules of movement create a similar effect:

“6) At NO time may friendly units pass over or through squares containing other units.

7) No more than ONE unit is allowed in a square at a time.

8) No unit may move onto “sea squares” (blue colored squares) except on bridges (SEE BELOW)”

The “SEE BELOW” references the rule for bridges which states in part, “Each bridge can hold ONE unit at a time.” 

TACTICS II also had what became known in wargame design as “Zones of Control.” Again, the term is not expressly used in the rules manual but the concept is clearly evident through movement rule nine:

 “9) Units MUST STOP when they move next to an enemy unit. They can move no further that turn regardless of how many movement factors they have remaining.”

 I’m not 100% positive but this may have been the first ZoC rule in a wargame!

“How Do You Have Combat”

The combat rules for TACTICS II are very simple, That said, the first two rules listed actually reinforce the Zone of Control rules elements found in the movement section:

“1) Anytime a friendly unit moves NEXT TO an enemy unit, combat is caused and that unit is said to be attacking the enemy unit.

2) IMPORTANT: Friendly units MUST STOP when they enter the FIRST square next (adjacent) to an enemy unit” (This included diagonal squares!)

[Now I’m very curious to see what wargame actually had the first explicit Zones of Control rule. It may have been D-Day (1961) but I’m not sure.]

Combat in TACTICS II is resolved using an odds-based Combat Result Table (the original, not woke, CRT) printed on a separate card. They also helpfully put a table for converting attack and defense strengths into odds. I guess they didn’t think wargamers had the math skills needed. Maybe this explains why the miniatures gaming Chainmail crowd in the 1970’s eventually settled on a d20 in their new story-driven, man-to-man/creature/something skirmish wargame—they couldn’t handle figuring odds and instead reduced the math to 5% increments!

IMG 2144-1
“Woke” TACTICS II – The Original CRT

The CRT in TACTICS II is pretty much what one expects. The table spans from 1-6 to 6-1 odds with 1-1 smack in the middle. A single “six sided die” is rolled to find the result. There are no “die roll modifiers”—DRM in today’s parlance—in the game. While attacks at less than 1-6 odds are resolved on the table, attacks at greater than 6-1 odds mean automatic elimination of the defender. Attacking at 1-1 odds is slightly less favorable for the attacker 

The CRT in TACTICS II is predicated on the philosophy that 3-1 odds is needed for success. I think this is a case where that famed Technical Advisory Staff had some influence:

“c. INITIATIVE — Almost all military experience establishes that an attacker must have the firepower superiority of three to one over the defender to gain an optimum chance of success. TACTICS II is based on this premise.”

There are a couple of wrinkles in combat in TACTICS II. The attacker MUST attack with all units adjacent to defenders while at the same time all adjacent defending units must be attacked. Given that all units can only attack/defend once this leads to the inevitable splitting of combat factors.

Combat results in TACTICS II are again pretty much as most wargames since have used. They range from Attacker or Defender eliminated, “retreat” for the attacker or defender, and an Exchange result in which both the attacker and defender lose some units. Once again I shake my in wonder that the essentials of combat results were already established this early in the hobby. 

“Routine of Play”

At the end of the Basic Rules in TACTICS II is a section called out as, “a summary and reference; it is not an additional rule.” The “Summary: The Routine of Play” is the Sequence of Play for TACTICS II. Once again I find that the terminology may not be as polished as later games in the hobby but another core element of a wargame, or any game for that matter.

Advance Game – Terrain & Special Units

IMG 2141-1
TACTICS II Terrain Effects Table

The Advance Game in TACTICS II contains three rules; terrain, special unit abilities, and “order of battle.” Broadly speaking, these rules are more often “basic” in modern wargame rules so seeing them designated as “advance” was confusing at first. That is, until I reconsidered the time the game was published. Terrain rules, or rules which vary the cost of movement in different spaces on the board, are quite common in modern games but at the time of TACTICS II were likely viewed as “radical.” To have rules that give units different movement and combat powers dependent on terrain (Paratroops, Mountain, or Amphibious units) was again “not how things are normally done” back then, but certainly not now. 

The rules for Organization of Forces in TACTICS II may be the earliest version of a “chrome” rule; i.e. a rule that makes for more realism (theme?) but has no real impact on play. In this case, units assigned to the same organization are set up together. Thus, First Corps units bivouac with First Corps units while Second Army units are near other Second Army units. Beyond the “chrome” of having your armies organized there is no rule effect. The rule book goes out of its way to say, “…after play commences, these units may be used in any manner or formation desired.”

Optional Rules – Mother Nature & Time to Scale, Supply, and the Atom

Buried within the Weather rules for TACTICS II is the closest we get to a time scale. It was not until I read this section that I realized the usual wargame “scale” rules are NOT in this game. The weather rule directly states that each turn in TACTICS II is one month long. Looking back, the Organization of Forces rules reveals units are divisions so we know that the game covers division-level battles on a monthly scale. What is distance is distance—nowhere in the rules for TACTICS II is the size of each map square designated. The absence of complete scale information doesn’t actually bother me. Regardless of Charles Roberts claim of a “realistic war game,” I see TACTICS II as a very abstract model of a wargame.

————

And no model—therefore no game—is an accurate representation of warfare. There are merely mechanics and dynamics that are useful for someone.

Volko Ruhnke (@Volko26) via Twitter 15 July 2021

————

TACTICS II also includes an Optional Rule for “Isolation.” In reality, this is a rule for supply as found in the very first sentence, “As in real life, units must be able to trace a “supply line” back to friendly territory or suffer the effects of being unsupplied and thus “isolated.” Here I can clearly see the input of Technical Advisory Staff member Col. Dickson who experienced first-hand at Guadalcanal what it really means to be a the end of a tenuous supply line. 

Although I recognize that TACTICS II was designed in the middle of the Cold War, I was still surprised to see rules for nuclear weapons in the game. I did not expect rules for nukes because I thought TACTICS II was a World War II wargame. Nuclear weapons are assigned to headquarters units and different echelon of headquarters have different delivery system capabilities. This actually leads me to further confusion as to the distance scale. While a Corps HQ with Atomic Artillery reaching 4 squares kinda makes sense (with cities being about 4 squares across) an Army HQ with an “Intermediate ranged rocket” reaching 7 squares seems a bit short, and an Army Group HQ covering the entire map board and called an ICBM just doesn’t sit right. 

End Matters

The last section of the rule book for TACTICS II is titled, “Military Tactics & Strategy.” What struck me about this section is the seemingly obvious references to Clausewitz without referencing Clausewitz.  The first section, The Principles of War, covers Carl’s laundry list of objective – simplicity – unity of command – offensive – maneuver – mass – economy of force – surprise – security. The second section is titled The Staff and Its Relationship to Command and provides short commentary on personnel, intelligence, operations, and supply. Taken together these first two sections provide a (short) military education for wargamers.

IMG 2142-1
Educational Wargaming

The next section, Terrain, Strength and Initiative Evaluation – TACTICS II, is closer to what many later wargames call Designer’s Notes. This section also makes it clear that TACTICS II is actually a bit of an asymmetric matchup with varied terrain and forces the are balanced but not identical. I found this section the most interesting as it forced me to look at the entire game as asymmetrically-powered yet balanced forces in a see-saw battle of opportunity vice two near-identical Goliaths slugging it out.

The final section, Problems of Nuclear Warfare, shows the age of TACTICS II. in this game, nuclear weapons are the ultimate battlefield combat system. In a way this view of nuclear warfare makes sense since TACTICS II was originally developed in the time of the Pentatomic Army where US war fighting doctrine was predicated on the use of battlefield nukes. [Interestingly, although the Pentatomic doctrine appears in TACTICS II, the Pentatomic force organization does not with units appearing to be a “traditional” three-unit composition; i.e. three divisions in a Corps/Army.]

The Art of War – TACTICS II style

In my play of TACTICS II I discovered a game play experience much deeper than I expected. In some reviews of the game on BoardGameGeek I saw warnings that if one takes the “usual” strategy of both sides racing for the middle of the board then the game devolves into a stalemate. However, if one carefully reads the “Military Tactics & Strategy” section and pays close attention to the comments on Terrain and Strength then  one discovers that TACTICS II is actually a good strategy game of maneuver. The keys to victory are indeed as related; use terrain, watch your supply, and use both time and space to mass your strength.

TACTICS II – From the Beginning to Now

As I wrap up my retrospective romp of TACTICS II, I am both pleased and surprised at just how much “wargame” there is in this very early title. Although wargames like Advanced Squad Leader were still a few years into the future, almost all the essential game elements of a wargame are present in TACTICS II; and the missing hexes were already in use in sister games. 

In my 40+ years of wargaming, I have played many games big and small, simple to complex, and chrome-laden to streamlined. TACTICS II taught me that we all owe Charles S. Roberts our deepest gratitude for creating the commercial wargames industry. His flagship game, TACTICS II, should be more widely acknowledged for its leading role in the development of our hobby.

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TACTICS II – A Legendary Wargame

 


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3 thoughts on “#TBT – A Grognard Looks Back at TACTICS II After 40 Years a Wargamer

  1. Rather than say it is surprising so many concepts were in use so early, we might just be amazed that Charles Roberts invented so many concepts! And so many have stood the test of time.

    You mentioned the all adjacent units must attack and all defenders must be attacked rules, which gave rise to one of the first nearly universal wargaming skills, the “soak-off attack”

    Thanks for an interesting read!

  2. “More than one commentator-reviewer saw this approach in a very positive manner and a few even went so far as to commend Jerry on his innovative approach. I’m not trying to take anything away from Jerry and Atlantic Chase but hey, the use of question headers may be unusual but Jerry’s use was really long from the first.”

    I’m pretty sure I was one of those commentator-reviewers over on BGG. In my defense, when I played Tactics II I was in 4th grade and taught the game by a fellow 4th grader.

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