Welcome to Historical Roundtables, our regular column where the Goonhammer Historicals team gets together to talk over a particular aspect of historical wargaming. They’ll share their insights, recommendations and warnings about the best way to engage with the hobby. This week we’re looking at force selection, the business of working out what soldiers are going to appear on the table.
What are the big considerations for force selection in historical wargames?
Lupe: Force selection is one of those things that’s absolutely integral to how a wargame plays – what units are available, and the combination of those units, completely changes the experience when it hits the table. Historicals is balancing the usual concerns of wargaming force selection with a very specific one that isn’t shared by many other games: you’re trying to not only execute a satisfying and balanced force selection process, but one that reflects historical realities.
This means that you’ve got three big considerations battling it out, from my perspective: how authentic is it to the armies of the era portrayed; how balanced is it compared to the other forces that are available; and how much choice and interest does it allow a player. One of the things I’m never sure how to reconcile is the fact that the “ideal” historical disposition of these units was often wildly at odds with the actual makeup of the units in the field. Attrition is a cruel mistress and I don’t know the best way of representing that.
Ilor: I think attrition would be easy to represent, even if it’s something as simple as “lose D3 men out of every squad before the game begins” or whatever is appropriate to the conflict. But the ease with which it could be applied highlights all the more the fact that so few games actually include it. In terms of “balance,” frequent readers of Goonhammer Historicals will know my opinion on asymmetric conflict and using your force selection resources to reflect the differences in how forces operate. Essentially, I think it’s just as important that your force selection systems reflect what your force can do as it is to decide what men or equipment your force has. Good force selection systems will include options that let you do things like break the game’s standard deployment, movement, activation, targeting, or morale rules. These options widen the decision space for players, which ultimately leads to more interesting games once you get to the tabletop.
Lenoon: Historical wargaming has to take force selection seriously – like Lupe says, you’re trying to do some kind of reflection of “what actually happened”. That sticks around whether you’re playing something scenario based, alt-or-wierd-history or even historicals in a tournament style. But I don’t think we should be held to it strictly, and a good system should let you do pick up games and detailed scenario planning within the same basic system. The degree to which you want “accuracy” is up to the player, but to me sticking absolutely to rigid rules of force selection isn’t super important – I want something that can easily create the impression that we’re doing something with a degree of relation to historical events and still leave a creative and innovative space to play around with. It’s a fine, and personal, line, but we’re talking about history here, something only as reliable as the people writing about it, the semi-random survival of sources and the degree of translations and analysis etc etc etc. I want force selection rules to give the feel of accuracy – a Medieval English force shouldn’t be 100% knights backed up by 20 siege bombards – because it’s feel that impacts the playing experience.
Lupe: I agree some flexibility is needed. I think what I’m probably looking for, in reality, is some way to represent the range of forces that were present in the era. It simply wasn’t possible to bring 100% knights and siege weapons, because that’s not how society was structured. I’m very happy for a historical force selector to allow me the extremes of what was plausible, but I dislike one that lets me create something actively ahistorical.
Mugginns: I don’t mind ahistorical force selectors for some games. Bolt Action is a pick up and play game where you can go to a shop and play against other people, so if somebody wants to try out a Pershing tank alongside their Tarawa USMC I don’t super mind for a one-off game. For historical matches, I try to take a look at the forces and realize where the author may be coming from. There’s a difference in history perspectives between American writers, British writers, Russian writers, Japanese writers, etc. Sometimes I look at ACW lists and just boggle because it doesn’t seem right at all – less so about the makeup of the force, and moreso in the special rules of the force or attributes. Sometimes it’s because it’s written by a European author with a different perspective.
What’s the best/most innovative/enjoyable force selection mechanic you’ve come across?
Lupe: There are a few that I’d pick out as particularly enjoyable for me. The Too Fat Lardies method of having a standard force that’s very rigidly defined, and then having reinforcements that are much more varied and customisable, is one that I like. Chain of Command, Sharp Practice and Infamy Infamy all use this method, and it’s great in some ways. It definitely solves that tension between historical accuracy and flexibility, since you’re guaranteed a core force that represents the authentic disposition of a force, but then lets you pick extras and options to make it your own. The big downside is that you’re often picking these extras on the fly, so you either need to have a huge pool of options to pull on, or artificially limit yourself. It also doesn’t really handle attrition – you’re never going to see an understrength unit on the table, despite that being a reality in every era.
The other mechanic I’d pick out is Saga, which gets points for pure simplicity and elegance. There are three basic kinds of troop: Hearthguard, Warriors and Levy. For one point you get 4 hearthguard, 8 warriors or 12 levy. A standard game is 6 points, and your warlord is free. Done! It’s the quickest and easiest way I’ve seen of representing the quality vs quantity divide on the table.
Ilor: I’ll put in another plug for the TFL rules’ force selection system. Starting with a core force that reflects not only the available equipment but also the command-and-control structure at a particular point in the conflict is fantastic, and helps differentiate between forces that would otherwise look very similar in manpower or armament. A 40-man US Infantry platoon comprised of 3 squads, 2 senior leaders, and organic mortar or bazooka support feels very different on the tabletop than a 41-man Italian infantry platoon, with its two enormous squads and single senior leader. The available support lists are also usually tailored to a particular time and place in the war, so you end up with forces that reflect the actual historical conflict you’re trying to game out.
This kind of a system also makes it very easy to get beginners into the game, because there’s less of a learning curve. You’re less likely to “lose during listbuilding,” which can be a problem for lots of tabletop wargames (some historicals included), and are pretty much guaranteed to start with a force that is at the very least functional if not perfectly optimized to the scenario or objectives.
Lenoon: I like a variety of different types of force selection from the very rigid to the loose I will go out there and say that the TFL way of doing it – at least for Sharp Practice – is good, but a bit hamstrung by the strange spattering of extra rules the Lardies give to their favorite (red-coated) nation. It gives a good historical/flexible mix, but then undermines it by making every soldier under Wellington a forty foot high, bullet spitting, machine gunner. Though of course, being a yorkshireman myself, this is a fair depiction of Sean Bean.
Instead I’m going to go say a warlord-style theater selector where you get a guide, some rules and a bunch of points can (and stress on the can) be a good way of doing force selection. The bolt action reinforced platoon isn’t perfect, but it can do pickup games in a way that ensures it’s by far the most commonly seen historical wargame you see out in the wider world. You can turn up with a war movie level of historical accuracy (ie: some to none) and have a good time. It’d be massively improved with even more compulsory choices and stricter limitations though – think space marines where you have to put 20 tacticals on the table every single game because that’s what the lore says. Lovely stuff.
Mugginns: I love TFL games, Sharp Practice is my favorite game bar none, but I have never ever used the ‘random’ method of doing support. I always just choose a number of points for support and then choose from what I have.
One of my favorite aspects of a game is in Forager, a small skirmish (half a dozen models) game set in the Napoleonic period. You actually build characters for each side with stats and traits, not unlike what you’d get in Necromunda. There are points for each trait or skill and you can roll randomly if you like. It makes for a very themey game.
And the flip side – what mechanics can ruin an otherwise fun game?
Ilor: For me it’s ahistorical mix-and-match lists. Bolt Action – which can be a fun game – is notorious for this, especially at the competition level. Because every unit type has a fixed and explicit points cost, in theory you can use whatever you like so long as you don’t exceed your allotted budget of points. This can lead to some wildly ahistorical army lists. An ad hoc force is absolutely a thing in historical conflicts, but “I’m going to take nothing but HMG teams because point-for-point they have the highest damage output!” is just an immersion killer for me.
Lenoon: Punitive national rules. If someone’s put time into making any force, in any game, I hate rules that put that effort down at the force selection point, unless it’s for a very specific reason. If you’re playing 1945 defense of Berlin, yeah you should have rules that reflect that you can choose between brainwashed kids, old men and the last of the most psychotic SS on the last of the amphetamines. But you shouldn’t have to be saddled with silly, offensive or just plain punishing rules for your force at the force selection stage – Warlord Soviets, looking at you. Looking in your force selection mechanics to find that you’ve been saddled with an outright historically inaccurate and arguably racist rule is not good game design.
Lupe: For me there’s a real consideration around ease of use. The worst mechanics for me are ones that either a) take away my agency in force selection or b) are really complex to understand and parse. For example, I really like the TFL game I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, but the force selection rules are by far the worst aspect of it, with confusing choices, unclear rules about how much to take and of what, and multiple ways of taking the same unit with little difference. When I take taking away agency, I don’t mean “here’s the standard platoon, you must take this” I mean “You cannot take anything else” or even worse “and now I’m going to randomly determine what you actually get to play with”. There is nothing more dispiriting to play a game where you have a unit of beautifully painted models that, due to a quirk of fate, never turn up on the table.
Mugginns: Again I love TFL games, and have played SP and WAT a ton of times, but it can be daunting when I’m playing Chain of Command (run by a GM, I haven’t run a game yet) and there are a lot of different teams and the Junior officers can bring on people and command different sections etc. For some reason it’s really easy for me in SP, but in COC I often get confused as to who is who. Not sure why, it has just been difficult for me. I’ve played BA for years so perhaps it’s the ‘this is a squad, they’re their own squad, they command themselves’ thing- because a leader in COC can bring on different troops and command them.
What force selection mechanics do you think are missing from games at the moment?
Lupe: I’ve mentioned it a few times by this stage, but I’d love to see something that better represents attrition in forces. One of the things that’s very badly modelled on the tabletop is the wider performance of units, but this is something that could absolutely be represented in various ways. As an easy example, German tanks in the second world war tend to get an overinflated reputation in wargaming circles because designers jump to their on-paper capabilities having reached a battlefield environment. But in reality German armour was one of their major weaknesses, as it was unreliable, had extremely high fuel consumption, and was difficult to find parts for. These things don’t sound immediately like they’re going to be interesting things to represent in a wargame, but some mechanic for, say, having units arrive at different times, or have different (increasing) chances of arriving, on the battlefield to represent the additional logistical load of bringing them would be interesting. Or perhaps a mechanic that reflects this by adding extra complexity to command structure and supply chains, meaning units are less well equipped elsewhere, or command capacity is less, as more attention has to be focused on getting them to the battlefield rather than making the most of the forces on the battlefield. This would be a good way of balancing these units rather than just inflating point costs, while somewhat deflating the myth of nazi megatanks, which is always a good thing.
Ilor: What I’d really like to see are some good force selection rules that support setting up opposition for solo play. Lots of historical games (and TFL games really shine here with their unpredictable deployment and activation mechanisms) allow for solo play, but very rarely do they have any kind of rules for how to build out the opposing force. And I’d give bonus points to any system that can do this “on the fly” during the game itself (rather than before the game). Anything that can be done to add to the fog of war when you’re effectively playing both sides of a game would be welcome.
Lenoon: Ilor I think we can do this with a blunder table. I absolutely love a blunder table every single place it turns up, and, although it would be a fucking nightmare to model and paint for, I think it’d be perfect for a solo game experience, as well as bringing absolute chaos energy to standard gaming. Roll some dice and oh crap, instead of light cavalry I’ve ended up with heavy infantry. The Bren Carriers got mixed up down the road and we’ve brought up the rifle section when what I wanted was the 2-lbr, or well lads the bad news is that the rifles have been driven off, but I’ve flagged down these Prussians and they’ve agreed to help out. I want chaos and friction even at the list building stage. That, more than anything else in force selection, gives me the feeling of accuracy. Has anyone, ever, had exactly what they wanted to hand in perfect order, right then and there?
Ilor: Exactly. There have been some attempts at this over the years – I’m thinking of Platoon Forward/Squadron Forward in particular – but you always need to tread a fine line between making it comprehensive enough to be interesting and simple enough that people actually want to use it.
Lupe: For me there’s also that concern about taking away agency. If you just have it that you might randomly not get to bring x unit at all, that’s a big feelbad (especially because we all know that law of wargaming is that x is the unit you just finished painting and was a lot of effort). Something that controlled the chaos a little, granted the player some agency over the confusion, that would be great. Perhaps a mechanic where you can sink points into logistics, and that gives you a pool of dice to roll from and then you can choose the best ones, so the better your logistics the better you can tailor the outcomes of your blunders? I can see that working, but that’s going to be the heart of your force selection process, I would imagine it would take the place of almost any other major mechanic because it’ll take up that much brainspace.
Lenoon: Yeah that’s fair enough, there’s definitely a feelbad element to a blunder table wherever it crops up – possibly I am a bit of a wargaming masochist in that regard. I like the way forward being a logistics element – maybe a stat or a theatre-dependent rule? A Napoleonic French force-blunder could be different for the 3rd Coalition than for the Peninsular War, or to safeguard the agency altogether maybe the blunder table only applies to the quality of troops, or their rules? Maybe you’re hoping for the Iron Marshal to bring his attack columns of hard-drilled men but you end up accidentally with the depot battalion – same models, different abilities.
That wraps up our mechanics round table but join us next month when we dive back into regular Historical content. In the meantime if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.