It’s All in the Die Roll
Pictured: The Lewis and Clark boardgame
by Pastor Alexander Ashton
Anybody looking for a game with perfect play balance where victory is completely dependant on the skill of the individual
should steer away from Historical Simulation Gaming (HSG) because history teaches us that whilst skill and comparative strengths do influence results it is the unseen hand of providence that seems to determine victory.
On the 9th of April, 1241 and the 11th of April, 1241, at the battles of Liegnitz and Mohi respectively, the Mongol armies crushed
two European armies bringing all of Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Danube under the Mongol leader Sabutai’s control. It is
doubtful whether the disunited feudal armies of Western Europe could have withstood the shock of a Mongol invasion, since they
were inferior in the fields of command and control, organization, training, equipment, discipline, communications, deception,
intelligence and above all strategic perception. However, in 1242 the “hand of fate” stepped in with the death of Ogati Khan.
Obedient to the law of his father Genghis Khan, the horde returned to Mongolia to elect a successor, never to penetrate so far West
My point is this: Western Europe was not saved by superior forces or greater skill, but by the unseen hand of providence. Any game
that doesn’t cater to such unexpected eventualities ignores the evidence presented by history itself and where everything is determined
by the players we have a game more akin to chess than a simulation of history.
So whatever the game system, the simulation needs to incorporate the hand of providence and this usually presents itself through the
use of combat results tables, weather tables, morale checks and random event tables. The one thing all these charts and tables have in
common is that they are all determined by a die roll.
Another example closer to home would be the battle of Midway, possibly the most significant victory of the Pacific Theatre during
the Second World War. On the 4th of June, 1942, Admiral Nagumo was in position to strike at the island of Midway. At dawn
Japanese bombers were sent to reduce the defences of Midway, however Nagumo kept his best pilots back from this attack and began
preparing a second wave against enemy ships. The only reason he could have had for doing this was intuition as all available Japanese
intelligence suggested the USN carrier fleet was in or near Pearl Harbour. He sent search aircraft out to the North East knowing that
if any USN carriers were present that is where they would be. However, one of the “Petes” was thirty minutes late taking off and
another returned shortly with engine trouble. This latter would have over flown the USN fleet! This was the crucial point in the
battle. Until this point, Nagumo had done well. He had inflicted serious damage upon Midway, he was ranging a strike against a foe
who should not even be there and sent out a search to correctly locate him. But for a mechanical failure in one minor float plane
“history” could have been considerably different.
Further to this having received the reports of his search planes that there were no enemy planes, Nagumo decided that his primary
objective should be to reduce the still operational runways of Midway Island. Re-arming had been in progress for some time when the
late plane made its position and reported 10 enemy ships, however the plane’s report was inaccurate stating 5 heavy cruisers and 5
destroyers. It was not until 8:30AM that the report was corrected to include a sighting of a fleet carrier. By which time it was too late
for Nagumo and the rest is history.
What I`m saying is–any simulation must include elements that ensure that either player is not so completely in control that victory is
inevitable. Even the best laid plans can come to naught by seemingly the most irrelevant of circumstances. Consider Nagumo’s float
plane. History is full of examples of such “bad luck” so rolling a poor result on the dreaded combat results table can be as much
a historical simulation as any particular game system.
The “Napoleon’s Health” rule of “The Battles of Waterloo” game from GMT, eloquently embraces a, blame it on the die roll
system. In the game, the command point rating of the overall commanders (Napoleon, Wellington, and Blucher) is essential for
gaining and keeping the initiative and determining the number of “leader initiative markers” available in the LIM selection segment.
What the health rule does is it varies Napoleon’s command point rating from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 5; and as a consequence, the French player’s ability to seize the initiative and control the flow of the game is dependant on Napoleon’s health.
The designer should be applauded for not only introducing factors that are totally out of the control of the player but doing it in such a
way that provides an accurate simulation of the historical consequences of Napoleon’s health. If issue was to be taken with the games
designer over this rule, it iw that he made it an optional rule when in my opinion it should be made compulsory for all those seeking to
increase the historicity of the simulation.
The weather has played havoc with the most well laid plans throughout time and history could be very different if it was not for its
ability to do the unexpected. The German High Command expected Operation Barbarossa to take blitzkrieg warfare to new heights and
force a Soviet surrender within 3 months. They had however not taken into account two major factors: 1) The tenacity of the Russian
people in defence of their homeland, and 2) the weather. The Germans had not prepared for a winter war and the winter of 1941-42
proved to be the worst in more than a generation–grinding the German war machine to a halt within sights of the gates of Moscow.
Every Russian front game I have come across has simulated the unpredictability of the weather with a die roll and a weather table.
There is no point grumbling about it as all it is doing is simulating history.
Bad die rolls on such a table may be bad luck, but consider the luck of the Mongols; it seems only the hand of God could stop them
in their day, when they attempted to invade Japan. In June 1281 the largest fleet ever assembled, appeared off the coast of Kyushu.
Four thousand vessels carried two hundred thousand men, most of whom were seasoned veterans. Weeks of desparate fighting
between the opposing combatants eventually saw the Japanese being slowly forced back before the Mongol onslaught. Then on
August 15th, a typhoon hit Kyushu and destroyed the Mongolian fleet. Cut off from their supplies and their line of retreat the survivors
were overcome by the Japanese. Imagine rolling a kamikaze (divine wind) on the weather table and on checking the result finding out
that the game was OVER! That’s not fair I hear you cry. You are right there but just be thankful that you were not one of the 200,000
Mongolians who rolled a kamikaze and it was ALL over for all but 3 of them! These three were spared incidentally, to spread the news
of the great disaster to the Khan himself in Peking. West End Games produced a diplomacy variant called “Kamakura” which incorp-
orates this type of natural disaster. If your army is in a province hit by a typhoon or earthquake, it is immediately removed from the
game. This certainly is an unkind way to lose a game but it is historical.
I have briefly pointed to just a few of those instances in history that have an element of providence within them, where it didn’t go
according to the form book because of unexpected mitigating factors. There are many more examples, but I think my point comes
across with the instances I have illustrated here. The moral of this article then is: the next time you are cursing an unlucky die roll,
pause and consider that what you are doing is simulation history and seeing the wrath of the Gods dooming your campaign to
failure.Labels: its all in the die roll, luck in boardgames, luck in wargames.