Thoughts on Chaos Gaming

By Charles Vasey, in Sumo magazine in 1992. This encapsualtes a lot of my thinking on the subject quite well.

Chaos Gaming

by Charles Vasey

Mike and I have been discussing gaming categories for some time now, the sort of aimless chatter that keeps the drinks bills going up. Many gamers will express preferences based on factors like historical accuracy, fun (whatever that is) and smart components. However, when you peel back the onion they often fall into other categories which they never mention. We have come up with three: Ordered Gamers, Experience Gamers and Chaos Gamers.

Ordered Garners like a large game, probably two-player, with nice steady systems. Their favourite combat results chart has lots of retreats, their least favourite can inflict horrid reverses on you with permanent loss. Ordered Gamers favour avoiding the bloody realities of warfare and its administrative difficulties (what Von Clausewitz calls “friction”). They come home from work bushed, possibly from an unfulfilling job, without any need to have reality in their games. Instead they can get stuck into a “real game” often an intriguing intellectual puzzle where good positional play and forethought will win. I think Ordered Gamers make the better Chess and Go players than do other categories. Experience Gamers are not interested in an intellectual puzzle. They want to see a story unfold as they play. To this end they may accept a complete lack of opportunity to influence the game providing it generates the required experience. The most famous class of Experience Gamers are the sports replay garners (and we have all done it, so no sneering) who enjoy recreating an entire season or game where the two sides react in the same way as their real-life counterparts. Of course Experience Games do not preclude skill choices, but I do not think they depend on them. We all enjoy the Experience Game (even if vicariously) because one can amble up to the gamer and say “How are the Steelers doing?” and read the results (and yes, you do find yourself saying “Goodness, they beat the Oilers”).

Chaos Games are based on the principle that you cannot control everything in this world and that much of it will function independently of you. As you cannot control it, you do not bother trying to simulate it as a game option. The “fun” of such games is winning despite all the “friction” you face. The corollary of this is that you can play very well and still lose badly (which is very unlikely to occur in an Ordered Game). I have always believed that, as a result, Chaos Games should be shorter than Ordered Games, so that you do not suffer for too long, and that you should play them in pairs, with a different side each game. This a]so means they do not need to be balanced, but can cover biased simulations.

Classic Chaos traits in gaming would be entire sections of the game driven by non-player determinants (cards or dice). An excellent example is MONOPOLY – you cannot choose where you land, and you go through the game (as through life) simply reacting to chances as and when they pop up. You can pursue a sensible policy, but it will not guarantee victory.

In CUSTER’S LUCK by Wayne Close (Glenn’s father) the players are all on the same side, being US Army officers. The contest is not between the traditional enemies (the Indians and the Army) but between glory-hunting officers (Custer, Crook and Terry) – a very Chaos concept. Consequently the Indians move by die-roll in a random fashion much as a nomadic people do when ranging across the enormous area of the game map. Sometimes they mill around in Brownian Motion. At other occasions they set off in a Volkwanderung towards some unknown target. What impels them we do not know. Well we do know actually, it is the dice that impel them but the dice are simply there as the chaotic agent of factors beyond the control of the gamers (hunting grounds, water, grass, Wakentanka, Spirit Buffalo).

This random factor often brings out an Experience Gamer trait in the Chaotic, he will invent a reason for some of these random events happening. A sort of example of this comes in the old S&T game THE CRUSADES. Combat is the usual odds chart with Leader factors (King Richard is a one, Sir Herbert de Merde a three). But instead of leaving it like that and having gamers curse an unfortunate six the designer, Richard Berg, locked on a formation matrix. Instead of modifying the CRT dice by the Leader modifiers you add a couple of extra stages (but note in a game with very few battles so this is less onerous than it might seem). Firstly each leader dices and gets a formation based on his side and his factor. Muslims might get things like “Envelope” or “Skirmish” and Crusaders items like “Impetuous Charge”. You then compare the two formations and get a single modifier for the final result. The end result of this is interesting. After a while gamers will say they lost a battle because their men charged into a Muslim trap and were slaughtered. Objectively they threw a one and their opponents a six, but in their mind’s eye they both see the Horns of Hattin being refought. A brilliant piece of Chaos Gaming this, it explains the wide dice range in most combat results tables giving a spurious air of accuracy to the whole process.

The formation matrix also has other typical Chaos trends, it is quick, has good “design for effect” elements and emphasises what you (as commander) can and cannot control. Of course many Ordered Gamers cannot accept that as commander you could not choose the best tactics (say in a card draw system) but then many Chaotics believe medieval armies to be only marginally controlled by their titular commanders. I do not espouse either argument here, but simply note that both can be accommodated by using the appropriate mechanism.

Because Chaotics believe in an endemic imperfection and that inefficiencies will appear they are more susceptible to using Area maps than hex maps. Now logically I suppose there need be no difference between the two methods. But in reality we illogical gamers do seem to see one. The regularity of the hex-field appeals to the Ordered Gamer with its neat stacks of counters, whereas scruffy Chaotics spill their counters everywhere. Look at TURNING POINT: STALINGRAD maps, how messy Nigel!

Perhaps the major divide between Chaotic and Ordered Games is the degree of practical influence the player can exercise. In the LA BATAILLE games you move, command, and calculate the fire of every skirmisher company, battalion, regiment and battery. Ordered Gamer heaven (and not bad for the Experience Gamer who revels in those uniforms). The Chaotic Gamer cannot believe it, he wants to be Napoleon and issue orders, even if his subordinates fail to carry out the orders because some command chart stops them (a convenient source of excuses this). This style of simulating only one level of command in a Chaos game makes such games simpler and faster but harder to design properly. You need to have sufficiently realistic rules to generate the un-influenced actions to permit the gamer to suspend disbelief, without going too far down the “millions of charts” route known to solitaire gamers and replay gamers. For this reason many Chaos games will fail to satisfy large sections of the gaming public (as was the case with CUSTER’S LUCK).

COMMAND magazine recently produced a very lengthy game called KADESH which was very popular with the Ordered Gamers. I found its combat process far too long and suggested that if you must calculate each combat you could save time by using the same dice for all the results of the same body of troops. Many gamers would find this method of deliberately increasing the risk (less dice, more opportunity for the result to diverge from the norm) unacceptable. I understand why but it seems to me to more closely simulate the sorts of changes in fortune that occurred in reality.

That takes us to a key point in any of these categories of gaming style. They are not the result of right or wrong but simply of differing preferences. I can give you a good logical basis for accepting Chaos Gaming as more accurate, but not for it being better for, to use that apt phrase, “having fun”. I also suspect that each of us will more readily accept one style than the other in certain periods or in connection with certain subject matter. But enough of theory; how might a Chaos game look? My second game ever was FRANCE 1940 by SPI (and latterly Avalon Hill). The game was an excellent example of an Ordered Game. There was a map based entirely on what the terrain turned out to be in 1940 (so that the fear that the Ardennes could not be penetrated is discounted). The Order of Battle is historical and well constructed, and ties in entirely with the historical result of the original O/B, but it bears no resemblance to the wide difference in estimated strength that the historical generals experienced before the campaign. Would panzer divisions prove effective, what about all those machine-gun-armed tanks facing French tanks with, technically, superior weapons? The result of the Ordered Game version of the campaign is that the Germans know they are the superior force and the French fear them, and that the French manoeuvre in such a fashion as to “harden” up the front in the areas in which the panzers operate. Because both sides can see where the armoured formations are operating the only surprise is how far the panzers can go within the security of the German player’s turn. An interesting intellectual puzzle but nothing like the real campaign.

The Chaos version of 1940 would start by distilling the key features of the campaign to the participants. What are the key features?

Lack of Knowledge: neither side know how their units will perform, what units they each have, and where those units are. Lack of Knowledge should be reflected in a deeply insecure feeling on both sides, if you read the German accounts there were plenty of occasions on which they were very worried that an effective French counter-offensive would destroy them.

Operational Inefficiency: The French made several key armoured counter- offensives, but circumstances, logistics and training all conspired to blunt the effect (often reducing the practical effect of the attack to less than ten tanks!).

Strategical Inefficiency: Timing lags produced all sorts of strange contests, and the further the panzer offensive went the greater the risk that decisions made in earlier times would go disastrously wrong.

Applying these principles in rules the Chaotic 1940 would certainly start with some form of hidden movement/ hidden stacks. Perhaps each player would know only what units were actually “in action” and other units further down the stack would not be seen. This is particularly important in counter-attacks. Most offensives will be strongly supported and you can count on panzer divisions to have mechanised supports. But a counter-attack is much less open to definition. The French had three armoured divisions, if the German knows where they are then he can breathe again. If (as in an 8TH ARMY-style system) he runs into one of them he cannot know where the rest are. Does he stop his advance and hit the counter-attack (and possibly lose momentum) or does he go on (and risk being cut off). What a choice! But exactly the choice facing the German commanders in 1940, and exactly the choice facing the Chaotic garner.

The probability range of combat results may need to be skewed more violently than was usual to cover the circumstances where armoured attacks failed because of the resolute activity of a few enemy units. If you can read the CRT and see there is no chance of serious losses then, I would suggest, you are enjoying a benefit denied to your historical counterparts. No matter how small there must be the chance, if such chance existed, that your elite armoured formations are stopped dead by reservists sitting in concrete bunkers.

There would certainly be the need in a Chaotic game to separate the stages of execution of a plan with opportunities for Cruel Fate to get its sixpenn’th in. The simplest route, in game terms, for this is the use of a mutual activation phase. Where each side “swop” activations there is always the opportunity that carefully planned offensives will be dislocated by counter-attacks or relocation of units at vital moments. There is also a need for “wobbly O/Bs”, that is, where the units you might run into are based on what the real generals thought they might meet not what they actually did meet. Although one should not overplay this feature it is vital in attacking the certainty that comes from seeing your unit strengths laid out on the counters as single figures rather than as ranges of results (which is closer to what reality would have).

Perhaps the key feature of a Chaos Game compared to an Ordered Game is that the Chaos Game seeks to put you in the place of the original generals – that is, you do not know what precisely is the position in front of you. One makes War as one can, not as one should. Adolf Hitler was supposed to have said that War was like entering a dark room, you never knew what would be in there until you switched on the light. In Chaos gaming you take that chance. Accordingly, History may need to be tinkered with; in CLASH OF EMPIRES on the 1914 Western campaigns the French belief in the advantages of the Offensive turned out to be correct (a simple chit mechanism covered this), wiping the smile off the German’s face pretty quickly. An Ordered Game takes the hindsight view of the historical campaign and asks you what you could have done, knowing what you know now. A Chaotic Game asks you what you would do now, knowing what you did then. Yer pays yer money, yer takes yer choice.

Charles Vasey (original source)

I Tawt I Taw A Coup d’etat

I’ve written a piece for Dr. Rex Brynen’s serious gaming blog Paxsims, a survey article on civilian wargame designs on the coup d’etat.

The coup d’etat is a long-standing interest of mine, but not one that’s generally shared, it seems.