Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Civilians in Wargaming – The Black Topic

On another blog that I periodic check up on, “Lebanon 1982”, the author Jon asked a question on one of his recent blog entries about how do others handled civilians in war gaming. See the following link for the blog entry: http://lebanon1982.blogspot.com/2010/12/civilians-in-modern-wargames.html I started to reply to his blog, but then realized that my reply was rather lengthy. So instead of replying to Jon’s blog entry only, I decided that I would write it for my blog on this subject, as I do use civilians in my games. So let us start this black topic!

Comfort level

Unfortunately, the sad fact is that civilians are very much part of war and suffer usually the worse. Because of this, most gamers have refuse to include this element in their gaming as they prefer to sanitize their views of war on the tabletop, even so much as not to even have miniatures of wounded or dead soldiers in their games. I am not berating these gamers, as I fully understand the reason why they want to sanitize their games to be strictly a game about combatants. I will say that the essay is probably not for them, but I am still encouraging them to read this entry to at least see possible options that can be open to them with the inclusion of civilians in wargaming.

The issue of whether or not to use civilian figures or stands in a game comes down to the comfort level of the game master and the players in the end. If a game master plans to have civilians on the table that can or will be used as possible victims, they should clearly spell that out at the beginning of the game so any players that will have issues with it can leave and seek a different game. If a game master has issues with the possibility of civilians getting harmed in a game, then they should not design a game where civilians are present. My own personal comfort level is that I am willing to have civilians on board that could possibly have harm done towards them as it reflects the more realistic challenges faced by combatants.

Why should civilians be in games?

Along time ago, I remember reading what I thought to be a best description of asymmetrical warfare as to carry out a guerrilla campaign in the mountains, forests, and swamps might get stories and songs written about you, but to fight in the cities and towns will win you the war. While small maneuver groups of irregulars would still need to operate in a mobile war against regulars in the mountains, forests, or swamps, but with every advancement of technology made available to the regular forces, it will become harder and harder for the irregulars to fight that style of war. They will then be forced to fight almost entirely in population centers. The controlling the population centers is a needed requirement for irregulars to gather supplies and recruits. As such, most asymmetrical engagements should take place in or relatively near civilization. So if one was to doing any wargaming based off of asymmetrical style of warfare, then it is almost a requirement to have civilians represented in the games.

Rules for civilians in games

Several gaming companies have addressed the issue of civilians in war gaming in their rules, with two that I think have a good handle on this are Ambush Alley Games’ “Force on Force” and Too Fat Lardies’ “Charlie Don’t Surf.” I will not discuss the details for these rules but both look at the Rules of Engagement (ROE) by regular forces and repercussions for regulars engaging civilians. I highly suggest either one for game mechanics. In any game, regulars’ players should have clear cut ROE laid out to them on about civilians in the game and what the penalties are if civilians are engaged. Like wise, the irregulars should be told what penalties there are if they shoot up civilians, like maybe they will have a harder time recruiting or taxing for supplies, etc. or even possibly having some civilians take up arms against them!

Civilians as part of the game

Depending on the game, civilians can be a hindrance to movement or combat; used as part of the mission objective; supportive role to one or both sides; or possible hostile force. I will discuss each one of these in a little more detail and will try to provide at least one scenario idea for each one. It would be better to add to the game two or more of the following ideas to will a proper challenge to the players. For an example of this, in a Vietnam game that I ran a while back (see blog entry - http://sapperjoeswargamingtoys.blogspot.com/2009/04/recruits-convention-march-2009.html), the civilians were both a mission objective and a hindrance. They were a mission objective as the US forces had to round up the civilians and move them back to their village. Then they were also a hindrance to the US forces as the Divisional commander (me, the game master) would not allow the US players to use indirect fire or airstrikes until all civilian stands are under control by the US ground forces so not to accidentally bomb or shell civilians.

Hindrance: This would be the most realistic use of civilian figures in a game. Civilians will be dodging in and out of line of fire causing regulars to hold fire, forced to move to a different location for clear lanes of fire, use a detachment to keep people back out of the fight which also prevents them from being used in combat, or suffer the effects of shooting through the civilians. Also civilians can also be used to block movement routes with broken cars, masses milling in the streets, etc. This blocking of movement should affect both sides and should be non-deliberate or random in their directions of movement. An example of this is in one game, I had a vehicle check point (VCP) set up next to a farm that was manned by regulars. The irregulars had a sniper and a small protection cell to shoot up the VCP and leave the board. On the board were also civilians in cars driving up to the VCP and the farm’s staff going about and doing their jobs. This forced the regulars to act against everything, since they had to secure the area and did not know who was with the irregulars. After the irregulars attacked, the civilians in the cars rolled for individual morale to see how they would react to the firefight. It was very well possible to have someone run over a soldier or crash into the regular’s armored carrier, etc. 

Mission objective: This would be the second most realistic use of civilians in a game. Depending on the scale of the game, several options are open to explore. In large scale games, the most likely best option is that of relocating the civilians. This could be an abstract thing of combatants holding off an opposing force while their civilians move off board. Or another option is for combatants to take a direct approach of rounding up the civilians to a central area so they can be protected or moved out of the area, while other combatants are trying to prevent this. This example is reflected in the Vietnam game that I mention above where the US players had to up to and take control of the civilian stands and move them back to an assembly point. 

In a smaller scale of actions (skirmishes), the above options can still be done, but now additional options become more available like: snatching key individuals, VIP protection, hostage rescue, and making contact with key individuals. These themes are pretty straight forward for scenarios ideas, but one game could have a patrol of mercenaries hired to rescue a group of civilians from a foreign power in a prison. Both sides don’t want to kill the prisoners for various reasons (a political barraging chip or the money bonus for a successful mission).

Supportive force: By supportive, I am not referring that the civilians actively helpful to one side, but that their role is supportive in a passive means. When civilians take a more active role against one side, then I will refer it to be hostile which will be detailed in the next section. Supportive force can be neutral or for / against one side. The game master should first determine the mood of the civilians towards both sides and the overall willingness to be supportive in a combat zone. Some of this information could be shared with one or both sides so the players can try to think out side of the box about how to interact with civilians to defeat the opposing forces. You may not want to provide everything to the players so to encourage them to try to figure it out by themselves. Some supportive roles can be the following: medical assistance; providing information on enemy forces or equipment (including bombs or mines); providing information or identifying key persons; showing a route to or around the enemy; or even assist in hiding or supply a force. Some examples of the different scenarios for supportive civilian help can be in a neutral city with high willingness to be supportive maybe during the firefight, the local church’s nuns and a local doctor will walk around the battlefield with a white flag and carrying the wound off to cover to treat them. This is especially good in skirmish games where wounds matter and would not be to out of place in a WWII game. Another possibility is in a friendly town with low willingness might see a regular force being told where an enemy’s cache of weapons is located after successfully interview with a civilian. Yet another possibility is in a non-friendly town with average willingness might have a civilian willing to lead a detachment of soldiers on a route that will get them lost and cause them to be taken out of the game (really lost) or delayed entry (it takes them a while to finally figured out where they were.) 

Hostile force: Hostile civilians are where they are willing to take a more active role against one side. This is different than irregulars in that the hostile civilian would not normally be actively involved in combat, but is drawn into it by the heat of the moment. The hostile civilian would probably not be willing to be involved in any actions afterwards after it leaves their area of concern. This active hostile role could be as minor as throwing up barricades in the streets to deliberately block off the routes of march for the opposing forces but retreat when challenged. As the willingness increase, it could become stone throwers or manning the barricades with successful morale rolls against the opposing forces. Next would probably result in full blown rioters and attacks with improvised weapons (clubs, knives, a rare firearm or gasoline bomb) but limited to a small section of the battlefield and not willing to move too far away from that area. Finally this willingness would end in active combatives with firearms and improvised explosives willing to move around on the entire board. In “Force on Force” rules, it is possible for irregulars to recruit armed combatives from groups of civilians and also has rules for hostile groups of civilians causing issues with regular forces. I believe that various levels of hostilities are pretty much straight forward that one does not need help on scenario ideas.

There is one other theme, but I don’t know if I should place it under Mission objective or Hostile forces, as it overlaps both ideas. This theme is to have the some civilian figures represent irregulars in hiding. To paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, “Be like a Fish in the Water.” While Mao was actually referring to in that saying is that the irregulars should not alienate themselves to the general population as they are needed to keep the irregular army functional, but it also took on a different meaning to be able to conceal oneself with the general population. In games where there are hidden units, civilian figures can be used to represent hidden units or blanks instead of something like having poker chips on the game table. You just move the civilian figures around to show the hidden movement until the opposing side makes a proper spotting check or the irregulars decide to come out of hiding and place the actual irregular miniatures on the board and remove the civilian marker. Another version of this is to have games where one of the irregulars is in civilian clothing and tries to get close enough to shoot some one, throw a grenade, etc., or just trying to escape with vital information or weapon, etc., or even to open the gate to fort so the enemy can come riding in on horses! In this type of theme game, the other side should be explained how to conduct searches and interviews in game mechanics at the beginning of the game. If they can’t figure out that this is hint that they should be looking out for an irregular disguised a civilian or the failed to make a proper search roll, then they just deserve that RPG round that was hidden under the trench coat!

Civilians in non-traditional wargames:

Huh? What do I mean by a non-traditional wargame? Well, what I am referring to are wargames that are not with normal combatants (standing armies and irregular forces). Examples of this would be police games with gangsters, rum runners, or riots; Wild Westerns; and monster games, like zombies. With these types of games, the ideas of how to use civilians in games discussed above still hold true and should be even more of a factor in every game. How can one game a 1930’s bank robbery without civilians to be in the bank for the robbers to possibly used them as hostages or civilians on the outside of the bank to possibly notice that the bank is being robbed so they can notify the police and even possibly take up arms against the criminals?

But the one gaming theme that I do not understand the complete lack of civilians is in monster games. I am not referring to heroes / fighters that happen to be civilians, but the screaming, helpless masses. I especially find the lack of civilians in zombie games completely an enigma, especially considering how graphic the zombie miniatures have become over the years. In almost every monster movie, book, etc., civilians are monster chow or screaming and running away and need to be directed or protected by the government forces. Even in these types of games, most of the above listed ideas on how to use civilians in games still hold true. Especially in games where the monster(s) are humanoid, for the searching to find the hidden bomb that they are trying to sneak in a blow up the secret space mission rocket. Also in monsters games, civilians can become one more thing that was not addressed before and that is food! In a game system a monster eating a civilian stand might be able to heal hit points or gain new powers or even charged used powers. Or in the case of zombie games…more zombies. Even in an alien invasion plan, like #9, the aliens could change civilians into zombies to create an army of the undead to attack the humans!


In the end, my own personal feelings are that by excluding civilians in games that you are denying greater challenges and possibilities in wargaming for the players. Also, by excluding civilians, one can really cannot give a realistic challenge for any game that is based off of asymmetrical warfare or non-traditional wargames. By not having civilians in asymmetrical game, you might as well play a version of “Wack-a-mole” with the irregulars popping out of empty buildings. Some people will find this fun and will be happy with it. To others, the endless hordes of irregulars pouring out of various buildings will eventually become boring and unchallenging. Others may also be contented to really playing symmetrical style wargaming with irregulars playing like regulars in the aspects of combat elements. Again, this is perfecting fine, but it only reflects the challenges for symmetrical style of warfare and not that of asymmetrical warfare.

 In conclusion, the use of civilians in gaming should be discussed between the game master and their regular players or club members to determine at what comfort level people are with civilians in games, so future use in games can be decided on how civilians should or should not be represent on a the gaming table.