Grigsby's leaders

We read to understand history but the game designer needs not only to understand but also to convey that understanding in game design.

In Gary Grigsby’s War Between the States, despite (too) many housekeeping decisions in the administrative and logistics areas, leadership stands at the heart of the action; the player delegates control to leader tokens whose inaction, action, and outcomes determine the course of the game.

A simple approach to this is, as in the old board games, would be to assign one or two values to a leader token and perhaps work in some dice rolls to mix things up a bit. Grigsby’s is very much a board game, compete with references to (computer) dice rolls, but the construction of leader tokens here touches new levels of complexity in terms of classes of characteristics. Then, the complex interaction of superior and subordinate leaders adds an additional layer of complexity. The player can – as in chess – spend hours analyzing a position and the leaders managing that position. I don’t spend less than an hour on a single turn, for instance, although it could be taken in less than minute. The Civil War simulation as ship-in-a-bottle. (One turn represents a month.)

Not to recap the manual, but the leader token has classes of attributes. It has a certain combat capacity (various defense, offense ratings), training capacity (varying by combat arms branch), administrative ratings, and a variable Grigsby calls simply “rating” which I call span-of-control. This span represents the maximum number of units subject to the token’s control. It can rise or fall based on events and outcomes. At the start of the war, the Union simulation ranks the Scott, McClellan, Fremont, and Butler tokens near the top with an immense gap down to the next level (McDowell). The McDowell-level tokens have to accrue a lot of experience to achieve Scott, McClellan, or Fremont spans-of-control, which makes it difficult to sideline those other leader tokens. Occasionally a new leader will appear; Burnside, interestingly, is positioned between McDowell and Scott. So too is the Banks piece. The Grant piece appears near this intermediate position while Sherman’s avatar arrives on the bottom end of command capability near the McDowell rating.

This seems to offer an interesting insight; span-of-control values divorced from other values can produce leader tokens capable of directing large armies into situations where the leader’s other characteristics fail or are barely adequate. Your army in front of Richmond could be under your Butler token who butts his head against the wall of a smaller force led by a less controlling general who has high defensive values.

But it’s not that simple because the player controls some of the token characteristics through the conferring of positions and rank. There are two theatre commander positions open at any given time and four army commander positions; if a token lacks sufficient rank for an appointment, the player can promote (award stars) - which costs political points. Thus, your Banks and Burnside tokens at the start could be useful army commanders but lack enough rank for the appointments. They’ll accrue rank “naturally” over time or you can jump them for a painful political price. The same is true of the Grant piece. Once you make such a decision, you’ll have to fire an incumbent, which also costs political points. The game generates death and illness among tokens, so you will have a “natural” opening occasionally.

Now comes the complexity. The capacity to act is represented in a leader token “gaining initiative” and then passing some of that capacity for initiative to subordinates. This is managed through the computer “rolling dice” three times on three factors. No initiative, no movement. With care and cunning, the player can form at least one high-initiative team to manage an active theatre. Under these leaders, the player will want cherry-picked subleader tokens with better offensive ratings.

Interestingly, the player will not want theatre commanders with middling administrative ability. These fellows rarely gain initiative. This is the debilitating factor in making the low-admin-rated Fremont token useless in developing campaigns (an interesting touch). Initiative depends in part on high admin ability.

Initiative results not only from “die rolling” but from the interaction of leaders on different levels. You can really get lost in this. Some combinations work as expected – Halleck over Grant – others can surprise or disappoint. And they filter down to new combinations at the lowest level. With the computer generating random sick leave, combat deaths, convalescence, and natural death, you may have trouble getting and keeping optimum leader combinations. There is also an historical record bias here, so I dare not risk my Mansfield in too many attacks if I want to keep him. On the other hand, I once kept Scott’s avatar "healthy" throughout one entire war.

A final level of complexity involves the leadership, the chain of command, actually feeding units into battle. Having gained initiative, the army leader may occasionally have his entire roster of subordinates also gain initiative. Off he goes into the attack, but for reasons not clear, he is never able to send 100% of the subordinates into combat; likewise the defender never uses the full defensive force. These levels of use are also helped or hindered by commander traits independent of initiative. Moreover - and I find this curiously realistic - the weight of an attack or defense builds serially, unit by unit, as each becomes engaged in sequence.

Control issues are therefore front and center in the gaming experience.

In a previous post, I mentioned the political scoring that determines victory. Leader tokens have political ratings; the Union player totals the ratings of his appointments in the theatre and army command slots to receive a political point bonus each term. These political point allocations are interesting and reasonable. Hardfighting, competent nobodies – like George Meade – keep the player from earning the very necessary political capital that offsets point losses from defeats, setbacks and war weariness. If you could have six Butler tokens, despite the combat values, you would consider the option for the political dividends.

Watching the effects of the “talent pool” you have organized operate through the game is rather like reading a Justice League type of comic book in which the peculiar superpowers of each hero are brought to bear. The Dix token is valuable – you wish you had more, for the Dix avatar, with a broad span of control and a high infantry training rate, turns out trained troops very quickly. The Union General Edward Morgan’s token has a startling good combination of political, administrative, training, and combat values with a large span-of-control to boot. I tend to want this avatar in as high a position as his rank will allow as fast as possible before the program kills him off in battle or with illness.

Purists will not like some gameplay tradeoffs. For uniformity, the North uses the South’s rank and grade system. Cooper (CSA) and Meigs (USA) can wind up in combat which seems odd. The concept of “theatre commander,” invented by McClellan against Lee in Western Virginia, was not institutionalized as here represented. And the limit on army commands (two per side) is arbitrarily restrictive.

Grigsby has clearly and neatly simulated the difficulty Lincoln is thought to have faced in managing appointments - and getting offensives - while avoiding the primitivism of the Centennial historian’s pigeonholing or psychoanalyzing commanders. Had he followed the Centennialists, his tokens would have had just one or two defining characteristics. This richness he makes is doubly interesting because he named his selectable software scenarios after works by Catton, Sears, and McPherson. He read their books, paid homage to them in naming his scenarios, then went about quashing their grotesque oversimplifications by means of an interesting game design.

The broad, ongoing revision of the ACW canon embraces even the world of play.