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Author Topic: Pivotal moments in wargames  (Read 1095 times)

Offline ChrisBBB

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Pivotal moments in wargames
« on: December 01, 2023, 08:05:08 AM »
Our game of the Franco-Prussian War battle of Loigny/Poupry (1870) set me to musing on the ‘pivotal moment’: that crucial decision, big event, critical roll of the dice mid-game that changes the whole course of the battle and where it could all have gone so differently. My thoughts here, along with some pics of a pretty winter battlefield:
https://bloodybigbattles.blogspot.com/2023/12/stolbergs-death-ride-pivotal-moments-in.html


Offline jon_1066

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #1 on: December 01, 2023, 10:10:51 AM »
Looks like a cool battle.  Interesting idea re pivotal moment.  In a way a game could be seen as a series of pivotal moments but can have snowball like effects.  eg a failure to activate a command leads to a critical situation that leads to a desperate charge that fails which then leads to a devastating artillery volley, etc.

So which was the pivotal moment?  The initial activation failure that set off the chain of events? The failed charge? The inevitable artillery fire hitting home? I guess we pick out the most dramatic moment to fit the narrative.  A doomed cavalry charge is far more emotionally satisfying than artillery grinding away or a commander hesitating to follow an order so we focus on that as the pivotal moment. 


Offline Easy E

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #2 on: December 01, 2023, 03:17:52 PM »
Yeah, a pivotal moment is often also a very cinematic one!

Regarding your thoughts on the various types of battles:

1. Decided at deployment
2. Ebb and Flow
3. Pivotal Moment
5. To the last dice roll

The absolute WORST is the "Decided at Deployment" category.  It happens, but when it does I tend to go back and scrutinize the game rules with a different set of eyes, because very few games should be decided by deployment. 

Is this a flaw in the rules, or did I really just mess up that bad?  Frequently, I really did mess up that bad!  Either because I did not understand the Point-of-View of the game, the historical context, or unit capabilities appropriately. 

My favorite games are Ebb and Flow and Down to the Last Dice roll types.  Pivotal moments can be exciting, but only if it is late in the game.  Too early and you are just playing out a foregone conclusion, and I have asked to call games at that point.

Interesting discussion on the blog and thread.  It really makes me wonder about what many of the players here think.  Is it better to have a game, or more of a simulation?   
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Offline jon_1066

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #3 on: December 01, 2023, 03:22:37 PM »
Decided at deployment is OK if you only realise it in hindsight.  ie "Gosh I really did screw myself with where I put my cannons".

Offline Belligerentparrot

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #4 on: December 01, 2023, 05:38:19 PM »
Decided at deployment is OK if you only realise it in hindsight.  ie "Gosh I really did screw myself with where I put my cannons".

Quoted for truth! And a really good read, ChrisBBB, thanks.

I have mixed feelings about "pivotal moments". I think they make the best kind of game when they're engineered by the player rather than the dice i.e. when my opponent (or much less often, me) takes a decision that is so good you just have to doff your hat to them. When the pivotal moment is a very lucky dice outcome, I'm much more underwhelmed.

I've also never enjoyed the one ruleset I played that was designed to create pivotal moments. In 4th ed (I think? Plastic elves and gobbos in the box) Warhammer the game was slanted towards cinematic pivotal moments between incredibly powerful heroes - so powerful they could easily and quickly seek each other out on the field for a titanic showdown, without getting bogged down in combat with mere grunts.

But that just became the whole game. Unless you house-ruled their power limits, whoever lost the showdown was now up against an almost unbeatable unit and the game was effectively over. It was self-defeating design: the pivotal moment is no longer a pivotal moment when it is, functionally, the whole game.


Online Harry Faversham

  • Scatterbrained Genius
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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #5 on: December 01, 2023, 07:09:46 PM »
I've just played a right gormless OHW mini campaign, Skellies v Goblins solo. Some brill pivotal moments, will be related, when I sort the AAR.

 :)
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Offline vodkafan

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #6 on: December 01, 2023, 11:06:36 PM »
Good post. And yes I have experienced that Pivotal Moment in wargames so many times. But I always only realise it after my King is dead or my infantry have been shot up or trampled by cavalry or I realised I deployed my skirmishers in the wrong place...
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Offline vodkafan

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #7 on: December 01, 2023, 11:14:33 PM »
Yeah, a pivotal moment is often also a very cinematic one!

Regarding your thoughts on the various types of battles:

1. Decided at deployment
2. Ebb and Flow
3. Pivotal Moment
5. To the last dice roll

The absolute WORST is the "Decided at Deployment" category.  It happens, but when it does I tend to go back and scrutinize the game rules with a different set of eyes, because very few games should be decided by deployment. 

Is this a flaw in the rules, or did I really just mess up that bad?  Frequently, I really did mess up that bad!  Either because I did not understand the Point-of-View of the game, the historical context, or unit capabilities appropriately. 

My favorite games are Ebb and Flow and Down to the Last Dice roll types.  Pivotal moments can be exciting, but only if it is late in the game.  Too early and you are just playing out a foregone conclusion, and I have asked to call games at that point.

Interesting discussion on the blog and thread.  It really makes me wonder about what many of the players here think.  Is it better to have a game, or more of a simulation?

Eric, I am going to ignore your very last sentence, because that is a whole other question. I had to reply because your post struck a chord, in my one -to-one games with my pal has.been (a wargamer of half a century experience I feel lucky to be good friends with) afterwards we have a little post mortem discussion and I did realise a while back that often I failed because of a very bad initial deployment.
However he has said I am getting better.....

Offline ChrisBBB

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #8 on: December 02, 2023, 07:42:32 AM »
Thanks for all the nice feedback and thoughtful comments.

I think the pivotal moment really has to be a high-stakes decision. (Me citing an artillery bombardment rolling a 12 was a bit of a cheat.)

'Decided at deployment': well, it's not really so black and white, you're rarely necessarily doomed. It's more a case of poor early decisions skewing the odds against you for the rest of the game.

To offer an analogy, imagine a battle as being like a long-term illness, where the disease is the enemy.
'Decided at Deployment' might be the fact that you became a chain-smoker at the age of 12, making it harder to fight the disease for the rest of your life and likely it will kill you.
'Ebb and Flow' would be just trying to manage it with diet, exercise and medication, to more or less effect - maybe ending in a draw (live to a decent age, albeit quality of life a bit diminished).
'Pivotal Moment' - that's the decision to go under the knife for that kill-or-cure operation.

Safety professionals use a 'bowtie diagram'
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow-tie_diagram
in which multiple possible Mechanisms can lead to a single critical Event that can then have multiple Outcomes. Our situation is similar except that the Event (the Pivotal Moment) generally won't result from one Mechanism but from the cumulative effects of several contributing circumstances (activation failures, an exposed flank, a battery's fire slackening from low ammo ...). It then has multiple ramifications, more so than a lower-risk decision elsewhere that does not change the situation so dramatically.

As for game vs simulation, that is indeed a whole other question. I sort of tried tackling that from a different direction in another of my Reflections essays:
https://bloodybigbattles.blogspot.com/2015/11/wargames-how-much-war-how-much-game.html

Offline EnclavedMicrostate

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #9 on: December 04, 2023, 01:12:02 PM »
A game I played at the weekend produced what I would term a 'pivotal anticlimax', where a good decision suddenly got scuppered by bad dice in such a way that the player who made the good decision was arguably worse off!

This was a Boshin War game using The Men Who Would Be Kings, so a very dice-heavy sort of set; the two forces were straddling a fordable stream, with one side a bit more built up and the other side a bit more open; each of the four players took control of one wing (I had the Imperial right flank).

Early in the game, my cavalry got charged by my Shogunate opponent's elite Lancer troop, which was unlikely to go well for me. His unit of 8 men would be rolling 16D6, hitting on 4s, whereas mine, already depleted from a failed charge earlier, would be rolling just 6D6, hitting on 5s. Naturally I was wiped out, but somehow hit with 5 of my 6 rolls, bringing his unit down to just 3 men. So now, instead of a large and deadly cavalry unit running around our flank unopposed and threatening our artillery, here was this very depleted unit that was doing whatever it could to avoid drawing attention.

Then, near the end, we had been sheltering a unit of 10 riflemen on our left behind a building, which we moved to occupy right as an enemy unit got into close rifle range. Our plan was to weather one turn of fire on the assumption that the hard cover bonus would limit our losses, and then fire into the enemy's midst and inflict great slaughter and provoke great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Instead, the enemy volley took out two of our men and caused us to fail a morale test, at which point our only remaining effective unit was an unguarded artillery piece that had now fallen into charge distance of the last Shogunate lancers...

Needless to say, we called it quits at that stage.

It makes me wonder, though, whether what I will now term 'pivotality' requires a set of rules where chance is relatively mitigated, so that the effects of good decision-making are both more certain and less likely to be turned around by a run of good fortune. TMWWBK is a very 'game'-game set rather than tournament or simulational, to use your triangle of design considerations, and while that creates some individually dramatic moments, it is equally able to rob those moments of longer-term consequences. This does make games last longer before the conclusion can be considered foregone, and can help keep players more engaged, but there's perhaps a little less in the way of a narrative trajectory to any given scenario.

Offline Elbows

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #10 on: December 04, 2023, 04:53:55 PM »
While not super common, there are definitely 'pivotal' moments in plenty of the games I play.  Where the balance is more or less tipped, and short of luck, one side is definitely on the back foot for the remainder of the game, etc.

However, even in a historical context, I think it's very fitting...and was often a result of luck anyway.  Plenty of times in history, an unexpected bit of weather caused an unforeseen disaster.  A general or commander interpreted a message incorrectly, a unit or army was misidentified, a commander was killed (or thought to be killed), or a unit misread the battle and fled...causing others nearby to do so, etc. etc. etc.  Even more common when armies or units were led by nobles/princes who had their own aspirations or political plans, etc.  Units receiving a signal and misreading it - or receiving the wrong signal altogether, etc.

Playing an ancients game recently, my buddy and I were meeting the majority of our forces in the largest plain on the table.  Three units per side, and very likely going to be a slog.  Well the center of my three units failed to activate for 4-5 turns in a row...so I ended up facing his three units with my two, and subsequently lost the center.  It was mathematically very unlikely that my center unit would do that...but it did.  We both agreed that more or less led to my loss (it was still a close fun game, but it really hindered my chances).

Plenty of historical reasons to justify it if needed (even though this was in an Imagi-Nations setting).  The commander of the unit was cowardly...misinformed...didn't understand how the battlefield was developing...disliked the commanders of the other units...etc. etc. etc. 



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Offline Easy E

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #11 on: December 04, 2023, 04:55:22 PM »
Safety professionals use a 'bowtie diagram'
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow-tie_diagram
in which multiple possible Mechanisms can lead to a single critical Event that can then have multiple Outcomes. Our situation is similar except that the Event (the Pivotal Moment) generally won't result from one Mechanism but from the cumulative effects of several contributing circumstances (activation failures, an exposed flank, a battery's fire slackening from low ammo ...). It then has multiple ramifications, more so than a lower-risk decision elsewhere that does not change the situation so dramatically.

An excellent post.  Thanks for sharing this. 

Offline Daeothar

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #12 on: December 05, 2023, 03:44:31 PM »
The one (most?) pivotal moment in a game that I can recall was during my very first game of WHFB. I played (borrowed) Brettonians versus my opponent's Greenskins. (both armies were his, just like the table and terrain, up in his attic).

We were all lined up and turn one he moved his far right flanking unit, a bunch of Wolfriders (Or were they on boars? Can't remember), forward.

I moved some knights on my far left flank. the rest probably remained where they were. And even if they didn't, they had no further influence on the outcome.

At any rate; my knights were able to charge into the side of the Wolfriders. This caused casualties and they broke, loping off directly away from my knights, in a straight line over the full length of the table, slightly on his side of the middle.

This caused all units they passed to make a leadership test, which they all kept failing and one by one they all ran off the table!

By turn 3, there had been one turn of combat and about 2/3 of his army was fleeing (or had fled) off the table and he GG'd me.

So when talking about a pivotal moment in a game; the moment his Wolfriders failed their leadership test and broke is the most memorable one for me. I've never had an easier win than that one and never before or after has a game been so decided by one single event...

Was it fun? It was hilarious at the time and for a short while, I thought the game was just dead easy (till the next week, when I got well and truly trounced, obviously lol ). But would I have liked every game to be decided like that? Absolutely not. Even then I wanted to win through tactics and not luck.

And it was blind luck on my part. I mean; who fails a dozen leadership tests in a row anyway? (and they call me D1... ::) ).

So pivotal moments absolutely have their part in a game. In fact in my experience, the most memorable ones have (at least) one. But they should not be completely caused by dice rolls.

My opponent that first game made a critical tactical error by exposing his Wolfriders like that, and a slew of bad rolls did the rest. So a combination of mistakes (or tactical brilliance on the other side ;) ) and critical dice rolls are what should make a pivotal moment together, and not just the dice rolls.

At least; that's how I fele about it :)
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Offline ChrisBBB

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #13 on: December 07, 2023, 12:07:14 PM »
@Elbows and @EnclavedMicrostate: thanks for taking the trouble to write such full replies. In both your examples, I wonder if the number of units involved was a significant factor? A typical BBB scenario has maybe 10-20 units a side, not counting artillery. In smaller games with only 5 or 6 units, every decision is obviously much bigger in proportion. This means an extreme result on the dice is magnified by comparison with larger games. Elbows, I'm sure that must have been the case in your 3-a-side game. Larger BBB games can still generate extreme dice, but there are so many dice rolls in the course of the game that they usually even out.

An excellent post.  Thanks for sharing this. 
Cheers, Easy E, glad you liked it. Incidentally, I enjoy your own regular thoughtful musings on various aspects of game design etc too.

@Daeothar: the Wolfriders fiasco must have been pretty funny and was evidently memorable. I agree, ideally such a pivotal moment should have a human decision involved (whether a careless error or an inspired manoeuvre).

This week's game was quite the opposite, a genuine ebb-and-flow contest all along the line. I am sure the terrain was a factor. We were fighting Chickamauga, a big ACW battle on a densely wooded battlefield that made radical breakthroughs and sweeping exploitation nigh impossible and it all turned into intense local fights. Report here:
https://bloodybigbattles.blogspot.com/2023/12/ferocious-fighting-at-chickamauga-1863.html?sc=1701950191434#c4733585960100787168




Offline EnclavedMicrostate

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Re: Pivotal moments in wargames
« Reply #14 on: December 07, 2023, 05:25:19 PM »
@Elbows and @EnclavedMicrostate: thanks for taking the trouble to write such full replies. In both your examples, I wonder if the number of units involved was a significant factor? A typical BBB scenario has maybe 10-20 units a side, not counting artillery. In smaller games with only 5 or 6 units, every decision is obviously much bigger in proportion. This means an extreme result on the dice is magnified by comparison with larger games.

I don't doubt it! It was six units against seven (and the first few turns very quickly turned that into effectively four against five!) which is the sort of size at which every little bit counts.

 

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