Play the Map!

Actual historical map of Manassas Junction.
Pub Battles “game board,” the actual Manassas scenario map!

Ever since I had first started playing wargames (starting with Tactics II in the early seventies) I had this dream of sitting around an oaken table, in a high back leathern chair, situated in a grand library, with a crackling fireplace. Before me would be a map, with blocks for the army units.

This is Pub Battles. In my imagination; I’m in the command tent sending out orders (moving my units) and receiving reports (resolving combat). The chit draw simulates the success, or failure, of my officers to carry out my desires, along with any number of an incalculable happenstances that may thwart or augment my plans. All this from a system that is Boom Simple!

I would look at military atlases that had maps like the one above, and despair that I couldn’t play a game that looked like that. When I looked through the available games, the gameboard was always covered with all sorts of “game” information. I am an avid wargamer, and I have always enjoyed hex and counter wargames, and took it as granted that a game would need all sorts of game information on the mapboard. I had shelved my fantasy of simply playing on a map.

I have also enjoyed miniatures, they’re great, both the rules and the aesthetic of 3D troops and terrain. I did tire of spending much more time painting figures, than I ever did playing the game. The hours painting/playing ratio finally drove me to distraction. And it took up so much space, both storing and playing. All the while, there was still that nagging desire to just “Play the Map.”

Then one day I saw a game simulating the battle of Brandywine. This game was played on a canvas map with wooden blocks. I was so excited, I had to have it. I didn’t even care about the rules. I would make it work. It looked exactly like what I had been dreaming about all these years.

When I got the game, I was amazed at how beautiful it was. This is a little surprising, since my expectations were so high. Then I read the rules, and they were boom simple. Like many simple games, if they are done right, the challenge is in the strategy. It did take me awhile to wrap my head around the Pub Battles system, I had a lot of baggage from other systems that I had to unlearn before I could truly see and appreciate the rules. Here is my post for veteran gamers who may be having the same experience.

Once I figured out how boom simple it was, I have had a game of it setup and playing almost constantly (over seven years)! Yeah, I’m that guy.

Playing Pub Battles as intended

My three ring binder with all my Pub Battles rules and scenario booklets.

One of the most common reactions for veteran wargamers upon reading the rules to Pub Battles is “These rules are incomplete!” This is because as veterans, they are accommodated to the wordsy rules of most wargames. They are used to rules that tell them exactly what they are, and are not, allowed to do. This is in contrast to novices, who find the rules easily understood, i.e. they don’t see what’s missing.

Pub Battles rules are written in a different style from most wargame rules. Wargame rules are written to encompass all possible interpretations, and misinterpretations. Very necessary when played uber competitively and in tournaments.

Pub Battles rules are “Gentlemen’s rules.” Not “Gentlemen’s” in the exclusionary, sexist meaning of the term, but in the polite society way of saying “Don’t be a dick!” Two players, with a fondness for history, should be able to recreate, not unlike reenactors, a historical battle. The rules provide a good general guide to enable two players to refight the battle. If a question arises that isn’t covered specifically in the rules, these same two players should be able to use history and common sense to come to an equitable solution.

Take the Line of Sight (LOS) rules. They basically say “Look at the two points on the map, are they within 1 infantry movement stick AND could they see each other? The only real question is how far into any terrain that counts as cover can you see? The thickness of one wood block. Boom simple.

What about occupying terrain? Whatever terrain the majority of the block is in, is the terrain it is occupying. State clearly what terrain you are in, if there is likely to be a question. Don’t be a dick!

If you are a veteran wargamer, used to hexes or area movement, You might be a little taken aback by a plain map. Think of it like this: Infantry in clear terrain can move one movement stick, if it moves into any terrain, it can only move 2/3; as if there were 1/3 size hexes, and instead of moving 3 hexes, it can only move 2. Boom simple. If occupying terrain requires at least half the block to be in it, then mapboard details smaller than half a block are ignored, other than for aesthetic purposes. Pub Battles maps are meant to be studied, and enjoyed. I like to think I traded studying rules for studying maps. What do you think actual military officers do?

Pub Battles is so authentic and realistic, it is used by the military to train officers. It is based on the Prussian kriegspiel model, but modified so that one, or two, players can enjoy it without a referee.

Pub Battles is so boom simple that any player worth his salt will have a million rules come to mind, I know I have! A rule for this and a rule for that, until I discovered I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I had made it too complicated. I had made it so “realistic” it was no longer any fun to play. Always remember, Pub Battles is a very detailed Corps level game, with the Corps broken down into component elements of 3,000-5,000 troops, it is not a regimental simulation! It can look like many regimental level military atlas maps, and most eye witness accounts are far more detailed than divisional level. When you’re playing a corps or divisional level hex and counter game, with each unit having 3-5 hit points, you aren’t going to worry about what kind of muskets the soldiers were carrying. You order this unit to attack that unit, and assume the local commanders are going to sort out all the details.

Do you have any questions about the system? As a lead playtester, I am happy to answer any and all questions. If I don’t know the answer, I have a priority line, I’ll find out for you. Command Post Games is a small company, and everyone is very busy wearing several hats. I will try to answer any questions posted within a day, usually much sooner.

Let’s Talk Value $$$

Pub Battles games are expensive. Just like cars, the high end versions cost more. Pub Battles does offer less expensive options. That being said, what are you paying for, and what are you getting when you plunk your good money down?

I also know, quite well, that for all of us, the gaming budget is tight, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” and there are a lot of titles competing for limited resources.

The Map

The biggest physical expense in producing a Pub Battles title is the map. Just the canvas alone is expensive. Add to that the price of the artwork, the hours spent going over different graphics, and you can appreciate the cost. A Pub Battles map is a beautifully printed piece of artwork, on archival quality canvas, suitable for framing, that can withstand years of abuse.

As a print alone, forget about the rest of the game, it is fairly priced. As a print alone, I can appreciate the cost. I wouldn’t buy it, but I could see the value. As a playable game…Take my money!

That being said, the most sensible option for many is the paper map alternative. And seriously, unless you’re looking very closely, you can’t really tell the difference. The actual biggest difference is the durability of the canvas. You can spill on it, crease it, and use it a lot; it is just plain durable.

The Wooden Blocks

Okay, I’ll admit it. The wooden blocks are what initially sold me on the system. They look so cool! They make me feel like I’m in the command tent looking over the situation map. They are neither cardboard pieces, nor toy soldiers. I mean, I get the miniatures thing, with all the care and pride put into the painting and what not (I’ve spent the time and money on my own collection), but it still feels like I’m playing with toys soldiers.

The wooden blocks feel like I’m in the command tent. For me, that’s a huge thing.

The Rules

You know what’s fun and easy? Dreaming up rules. Nothing is more satisfying than coming up with a cool rule, maybe even adding a thoroughly researched chart or table. You know what isn’t fun? Trying to enjoy a game loaded down with all that chrome!

It is harder to draft a short set of rules that creates an authentic, realistic experience. That is what Command Post Games has managed to do with Pub Battles. Read my discussion of the rules.

It All Adds Up To This:

We all have monster games that cost a lot of money, and never get played, they’re just so cool! It’s fun to set up a huge map, and gaze at the hundreds of counters. Really, I get it.

We all have that dream of getting some friends together and actually playing it…Some day.

A Pub Battles map looks beautiful, and looks super cool when set up, too. But you know what else? It’s quick playing fun. Most Pub Battles can be played in a little over an hour. You can even play best of three, in an evening! They are immensely replayable. They are also ideal for solo play, meaning they get played a lot. The “dollars spent per hour played” can easily make them one of the best value games in your collection.

The Pub Battles Rules

Many folks, quite reasonably, assume that long rulebooks with dozens of tables and charts, are more work than shorter, more concise rules. The truth is, it’s fun and easy to invent rules for all sorts of things. Almost any aspect of the chaos of battle can have a metric applied, and the effect modeled. All this chrome adds to the perceived value of the game, but does it make for a better game?

This is the sort of question that can’t be answered by a single yes, or no. It depends on the aim of the game, and the desires of the players. The issue comes down to whether or not the game feels real. The whole point of a simulation is to simulate. To that end, it seems obvious that greater detail equals greater realism.

Except for a few key observations. Every time you add a rule for something, it calls into question all details at that level. “If you’re going to cover this, then you should cover that.” Are supply points needed? If you have supply points, shouldn’t they be broken down into food, dry goods, and ammo? What is the rate of consumption? Should ammo be divided into powder and ball? Every designer asks these questions and adds to taste. Detailed supply rules are interesting, but never fun. They feel more like what should be somebody else’s job while you plan strategy!

Most rules details are called “chrome.” Designers add them on after the game is designed, to make it look sexy, and sell. “This game has X, and it tracks Y, so you know a lot of research has gone into designing it, and making it realistic!”

Pub Battles began with the idea that the Prussian Kriegspiel system had it right, and modeled off of that. They discovered that you don’t need to know any rules to play, only to referee. The player just writes orders, the referees must decide what happens. The whole point of Kriegspiel was to train officers to command armies.

The Pub Battles rules simulate exactly that. The chit draw determines the success of your orders (movement phase), and the simple combat results tell you what happened (combat phase).

Looking at the end result, it seems as if not much effort was put into the rules, but that is categorically not true. Quite the opposite! They started with a ton of rules, with more being added constantly, as they removed others. The goal became one of determining how many rules were necessary. Over time, it became surprising how much could be cut away, while still leaving a working game.

From that, it was discovered that the game became more authentic feeling, more enjoyable, and quicker playing. Once all the unnecessary rules were stripped away, players could focus on the essential issues of commanding an army.

Imagine that by yourself, or with a friend, you want to reenact a battle. You have a historical map and some wooden blocks. You both know the battle well, so you set it up and begin moving units, when combat occurs, you add a little narrative and describe the outcome. This is pretty cool, but eventually you want to try your hand at simulating different strategies, with different out comes.

So you draw chits to move, simulating the ebb and flow of initiative, My blog about the chit draw. and create a simple combat system to resolve combat, just rolling some six siders. Boom. Simple. You’ve got Pub Battles.

It’s lean manufacturing principles applied to wargame rules.

Experimental Rules: Not Official!

This post will be regularly updated as I work with possible changes to the official rules. Nothing here is official! The guidelines for any new rule are these:
-They must add to the authentic feel.
-They must be clean and smooth.
-They must focus primarily on Corps level command operations.

Boom. Simple. One die combat. For each combatant roll 1d6/2 round down (0-3 hits). Modify hits, not die rolls. For Dragoons -1. For Detachments -2.

This is a shorthand way to resolve combat. Some find the math to be worse than reading 6 dice. Like anything, it becomes second nature. The probabilities are close enough. This is not being considered for official use.

Example: Attacking a defender in cover; roll a 5, for 2 hits. Minus 1 for cover equals 1 hit.

HQ movement. An HQ may move to any location on the map if a valid path exists.

This recognizes that a single rider, or small group, could easily cross the entire map in 1.5 hours. Note that it can only provide for combat command after it moves, whether or not it actually moves at all.

Foot forced to retreat from mounted, is eliminated instead.
Mounted in contact with the same foot after combat, must retreat.

These two rules acknowledge the interplay of charging cavalry formations, with less mobile infantry and artillery formations. They either swept them away in a charge, or rode off.

A block may change its facing at a cost of 1/3 of its move.

This rule addresses the “gamey” tendency to use more elaborate maneuvers than would have been possible for divisional level units following written orders.

When multiple blocks are involved in combat, resolve in individual pairs (including mods for flanking!) in the order decided by whichever side is designated to determine the order of combat by the scenario rules.

This allows the smooth resolution of complex combats, while allowing a simple mechanic to show superior military organization. It also gives the players, by using foresight, to anticipate the consequences of entering into complex combats with a superior foe.

A block that finishes its move within an enemy Field of Fire must  be moved to contact.

A unit that is within an enemy FoF shouldn’t be able to just sit there invulnerable to enemy presence. This acknowledges that, and simply requires the unit to be placed in contact with an enemy block. If the active player doesn’t desire that, they can simply remain outside of enemy combat. This also addresses a block which due to previous turn’s combat, may begin the turn in an enemy FoF, i.e. it must end its turn in contact with an enemy, or move out of the FoF.

The Power of the Chit Draw

One of the deepest, most immersive, parts of the Pub Battles system is the chit draw. It is so much more than just a way to manage simultaneous movement. First, you have to establish that nothing is truly simultaneous. Next, you have to allow that even though we do movement first, then combat, it does not imply that everyone moves, then a bell rings, and everyone fights. In and among all the action of a passing 90 minutes (one Pub Battles turn), a swimming multitude of events occur.

How to resolve this? You could go super detailed, and make it 10 minute turns, fighting or moving, but there is no guarantee that would be any more realistic. In fact, many of us are under the opinion that the more exact you try to be, the farther away you get from simulating anything approaching reality! There are too many variables to consider.

Enter the “design for effect” philosophy. Essentially, what yields the most historically possible outcomes, AND what feels the most authentic? Authenticity is a tricky concept. In Pub Battles, where each player is in command of multiple Corps, you ideally want a system that feels like you’re making that level of command decisions.

The chit draw creates that feeling. Frank Chadwick famously said that the problem with most wargame rules is that they allow the players more control than their historical counterparts could ever dream of having.

Part of this is Fog of War, Generals were frequently at a loss as to where and what the enemy was fielding. Heck, they were often as mystified about their own army! They sent out orders, and got reports. They studied their maps in the command tent and tried to formulate a plan based on their knowledge of the enemy, and their own commanders.

The Pub Battles chit draw system mirrors this quite closely. When you move your units, it is like you are sending out orders. The combat results show the information that’s coming in from the battle. You don’t know until all chits are drawn, whether any of your attackers are still in contact, or if any of your non-attacking units have been attacked. Furthermore, until after the combat phase, you won’t know many of your block’s final positions. Combat results simulate when the historical commanders got back reports from the field.

You will realize this, if you play Pub Battles solitaire, like I most often do. Even having perfect knowledge of the enemy’s units and positions isn’t a guarantee of carrying out your plans successfully. I might know exactly where the enemy’s Baggage Train is, and know that it is within reach of one of my units, but I don’t know if the chit draw will let me contact it, or if one of his units will move first.

For the same reason, I can never be sure if the plan that worked last time, will work this time. The chit draw changes everything! This is the reason that Pub Battles games are so replayable. For a game to play the same way, the chit draws would need to be the same. Waterloo has 12 chits to draw, over seven turns, that’s over 25 million different chit draw combinations! Even Brandywine, with only 5 chits and five turns has over 3,000 different chit draw combinations. Austerlitz with 14 chits drawn over 8 turns yields over a billion combinations! I have played most of the titles hundreds of times. I still find each game has a different feel.

Interpreting the Chit Draw

There is a lot more combat than what is resolved in the combat phase, explicitly. There is also the implied combat.

I use the term implied, because it may have happened, or maybe something else occurred. If you move to attack, and your opponent moves after you, and leaves your Field of Fire, what the game might be showing is that your opponent has fought a successful delaying action.

All the game is actually saying is that the attacker failed to close with the defender and achieve a decisive result.

There may have been no combat at all! There are an infinite number of occurrences that could have foiled the attacker’s plans. First, were the orders received, were they understood? Maybe the commander on the field was uncertain as to the position of the enemy, or was there a perceived threat from a different sector? If the orders were not a problem, maybe a key brigade was delayed and unready to move. Maybe a critical ammo wagon just arrived and caused a delay setting out while everybody got resupplied. Maybe, they aren’t even there! The commander may not have their correct position.

Rather than have an exhaustive rule for each possibility, and you are guaranteed, even that couldn’t cover all possibilities, the chit draw handles it all with one simple mechanic. One’s imagination, aided by one’s familiarity with the history, and human psychology, can imagine whatever event occurred. It is quick, simple, and ultimately more accurate.

Let’s look at combat resolution to discuss the consistency of the “design for effect” philosophy. What about when both units retreat, or one unit retreats even though the enemy is eliminated? What the game is telling you when both units retreat, is that neither was able to gain sole control over that piece of terrain within the space of the turn. The fate of that piece of terrain will have to wait until a later turn. In the case of a block retreating from an eliminated block, it simply means that one side was driven off, but the “victor” was so decimated by the effort as to be no longer combat effective.

The Intellectual and Unnecessary Thinky Bits

No one will ever know what exactly transpired at Waterloo.” Duke Wellington

As an English major, versed in Post-Modern literary theory, I really get into the non-linear narrative aspects of the chit draw. Most gamers fixate on what the board is showing them at every given moment. They imagine an exact depiction of events. Even though no one who was actually there ever had that comprehensive a view.

In a true non-linear depiction, like in those movies that show you a disjointed set of scenes in mixed order, not until after the whole story is told can you even hope to get the whole picture. Pub Battles with the chit draw is like that. All the map really shows you is the best estimate that you can get in the moment; units seem to be in their positions shown, the results after combat can seem to indicate the results, but until one army breaks and runs, or the sun sets, nothing is certain.

For some, this is frustrating and unsatisfying. Why bother at all? Just roll a die and declare a winner! I get that, but it is important to draw the line at how complicated a game should be, because greater complexity, beyond a point, never results in greater realism, it merely limits the narrative.

For many, like myself, the best game delivers the most authentic experience. The really great games immerse you in the narrative. Every time I have to look up a rule, or consult a chart, I’m drawn out of the narrative. I find with Pub Battles, I can play the map. there is no game information on the map. Like my historical counterparts, I am looking at a map, with estimated unit positions. Pub Battles began as an attempt to create a version of Kriegspiel, the Prussian training wargame, except updated, and that could be played without a referee. In classic Kriegspiel, the players are just told the results of their orders, the referee handles all the movement and combat results. To truly recreate commanding troops in the field, this is the way that the Prussian military did it. Today, Pub Battles is used by the military to train officers.

That’s close enough for me.

Solo Pub Battles

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I like playing solo.

Like many wargamers, I play solo mostly. Not always, but mostly. I can certainly find opponents. My Favorite Local Game Store has a large dedicated area for playing games, and it is relatively easy to find a willing opponent. I also have many friends who enjoy Pub Battles.

I prefer playing solo. I don’t have to go anywhere, nor need I accommodate another player’s schedule, or entertain at my house. I can play for awhile, go do something else for a bit, deal with Real Life, whatever.

When my family gets together for a game night, they prefer other games, which I also enjoy.

Pub Battles has many qualities that make it not just suitable, but ideal, for solo. It is smooth playing, by which I mean that it isn’t covered in game chrome (charts, tables, nitpicky rules, etc.). You don’t have a lot of extraneous desiderata laying about the map.

There is a of Fog of War element to Pub Battles. Part of it is the chit draw, part of it is the hidden identities of the fresh units. When I play solo, I turn one set of blocks around so that they are all facing me, so I know what every block is. That’s okay. I don’t play competitively, which is a misnomer when playing two-fisted solo. I play to recreate the battle, and try different strategies. I play each side as if they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

When I play solo, I let the chit draw be the fog of war. I may know exactly where the enemies baggage Train is, and it might be wide open, ripe the picking. Unless the enemy gets the drop on me, and moves first. The chit draw decides. I can even roll to alter change order and jump ahead, it is out of my direct control.

I got a secret. When I play, especially if I’m making a video, I will go with the straight chit draw, even if it means that one side is going to lose. If it makes for a dramatic end, BOOM! I use it. No one enjoys playing, much less watching, a grindy game.

About this blog

This blog is my own creation, not an organ of Command Post Games, the Publisher of the Pub Battles system.

You might ask what I hope to gain by starting this blog.

I want Pub Battles to be successful. The more successful it is, the more titles they will produce, and this is what I want.

I also enjoy talking about it, and sharing experiences. I look forward to hearing from those who visit my blog and YouTube channel.

I am a lead playtester. This means I know the system about as well as anyone. I can certainly answer any questions about the rules, as well as discuss the why behind the how.

Apples to Apples: How detailed is Pub Battles?

Gettysburg Day 3 setup guide from rulebook.

When folks first read and play Pub Battles, one of the most common complaints is that it is too simple. They see the wood blocks and start immediately imagining it’s a regimental level game. They want ranges, and hit points, and weapon types. As a regimental level game, its combat mechanic is very simplified, it is too simple to be truly satisfying, but that is not what the game system is trying to emulate.

The blocks in Pub Battles represent 3,000-6,000 men, and that’s roughly a division in the black powder era. Some really large divisions are represented by 2 blocks. Even that is somewhat misleading. The divisional names are just for color, they don’t actually correlate exactly with the divisions named on the label. It is a mistake to get locked into thinking that this is a divisional level simulation.

Pub Battles is, in the final analysis, a Corps level command focused simulation. At the Corps level, it is quite detailed. Rather than a single block representing the corps, each corps is represented by several independently moving and fighting blocks.

The blocks represent the Corps quite accurately. If a Prussian Corps contained 50% landwehr, then 50% of the blocks in that Corps will be rated militia (Pub Battles’ term for any low-quality brittle troops). Of course, the Landwehr was spread amongst all the Corps’ units, not all in the Divisions matching the labels, but at the Corps level, the model is accurate.

Similarly, a Corps like A.P. Hill’s, might be all reliable troops, and the Corps receives one elite block, to represent its overall efficiency.

Sometimes a Corps will receive an elite, or a militia block because the Corps commander was better, or worse, than other commanders, and the reliability of his Corps reflects that. Usually this isn’t necessary, because the best troops were paired with the best commanders, and vice versa.

To address the original analogy, one should compare Pub Battles with hex and counter systems where the counters represent divisions. There are very few complaints about those games lacking detail. You compare strengths, get an odds ratio, roll the dice, and consult the combat table.

Pub battles is easily as detailed at the divisional level as that, and when you add in the Corps and Army command rules, and the Baggage Trains, it is quite the simulation. It does this with a minimum of rules, and a simple terrain chart that is easily memorized after one game.

The design philosophy with Pub Battles is not how detailed can we make the game, but how few rules can we use to create an authentic command experience? This is much tougher than inventing endless rules for this and that. Creating rules for things is fun and easy, even as those rules degrade the fun and ease of play!

This is what Pub Battles is simulating in my imagination; I’m in the command tent sending out orders (moving my units) and receiving reports (resolving combat). The chit draw simulates the success, or failure, of my officers to carry out my desires, along with any number of an incalculable happenstances that may thwart or augment my plans. All this from a system that is Boom Simple!

What do you think? Is Pub Battles too simple, too complex, or just right?