Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Piquet Ramblings 2: Being Braxton Bragg

A quick disclaimer to start. I don't consider myself a great writer. I'm a wargamer who takes the time to share some of his thoughts about gaming with whoever might be reading this blog. I'm not convinced these articles will be well-received. My battle reports with nice pictures always seem to get good reviews, but I'm not sure how much interest there is for articles that don't have eye candy attached.

I'm also a certified Piquet Zealot, so I feel a need to spread the word about Piquet, a set of wargaming rules that have been around for a long time, but receive very little attention compared to some of the more mainstream rules in our hobby.

As I've played wargames, I've learned that the games I want to play are those games that place the greatest focus on command and control issues. When I read accounts of battles, there are a few influential leadership factors that affect the outcome in most of them:
  • rapid decision making vs. command failure/timidity
  • clear vision vs. fog of war/commanders' perceptions and misconceptions of the battle events that are occurring
  • inability vs. ability to adapt to the battlefield and unanticipated events
  • insubordination/command failure of sub-commanders vs. initiative and decision making of small unit leaders
As game players and history readers, it is easy to criticize our historical counterparts. We have a bird's eye view of the battlefield. No clouds of black powder obscure our impeccable view of the battlefield. We don't have jerk-off subordinates who hate us and want to make us look like idiots. (Well ,most of us don't.) We are making decisions in a comfortable room with a ready supply of food, booze, and a good night's sleep.

Some rules simulate command problems by restricting or preventing movement, but even with these rules, the players still have a general idea that they will be able to perform a certain series of actions based on established turn phases or turn segments. Most rules guarantee you that after your opponent has moved/fired/charged, you will be given the opportunity to do the same. I understand this type of game convention is common and standard in most rules, but until I played Piquet, I never really felt the same doubt and uncertainty that many commanders seemed to experience in military history. In a real battle, you don't KNOW that you're going to get a Move Sequence.

Piquet presents the player with an unusual method to introduce the chaos and command friction that most armies experience once the bullets start flying.

WHO GOES FIRST?

Each army commander competes for Initiative. In the standard Master Piquet rules, each side rolls a d20. The high roller wins the Initiative and gets the difference in the die roll in Impetus Pips. The winner has the "Initiative". It's basically his turn. So, if Robert beats John by 9 on the roll, Robert gets 9 Impetus to use during his Initiative.

WHAT CAN THE TROOPS DO?

Each army has a Sequence Deck that consists of a set number (usually 25-30) of cards. It costs 1 Impetus Pip to flip a card from your Sequence Deck to be your active Impetus card. Your units can only perform the actions that are allowed by this active card. So, if you have an "Infantry Move in Open/Light Terrain" card active, you can move your infantry units. If a "Musket Reload" card is active, you can reload you musket-armed units. If you want to move your artillery, you have to wait for the "Artillery Move" card. If you want a unit to change formation ("That cavalry is on your flank!!! I can clearly see it approaching from my helicopter viewpoint!"), you have to wait to flip the "Deployment" card.

Some advantageous tactical situations do allow you to act without a card. For example, if you want to melee, you normally have to wait for a Melee Resolution card. Until you get that card active, your unit will stay in contact with the enemy and is only considered engaged. However, if you flank the enemy or contact a disordered enemy unit, you no longer have to wait for the Melee card and can fight a melee with him right away. It pays to turn a flank.

Unfortunately for Robert, acting on all of these cards is not free. You also pay Impetus Pips to act on the active Sequence cards. So, if Robert has 9 Impetus Pips, he has some decisions to make. If one of his infantry battalions has a threatened flank, and he flips a "Cavalry Move in Open/Light Terrain" card, he might want to fire a few units (1 Impetus each), move some cavalry units (costs Impetus), or flip more cards from the Sequence Deck (1 Impetus per flip) in an effort to find that "Maneuver" card he needs to change the facing of his threatened battalion.

Just like armies, all Sequence Decks are not created equal. Poor armies will have Sequence Deck that are less efficient than better armies. Great leaders have better cards that help their army's Sequence Decks:
  • One card that reduces efficiency is the "Dress Lines/Milling Around" card. This card is basically a wasted Impetus Pip when it flips. No actions can be performed when it is active. Bad armies have more of them.
  • Poor and Abysmal army commanders hurt their armies' Sequence Decks by adding "Command Indecision" cards to the deck (1 if Poor, 2 if Abysmal). When a Command Indecision card is flipped, it burns off all of the remaining Impetus Pips and ends the Initiative. A real attack killer.
  • Skilled and Superior army commanders help their armies' Sequence Decks by adding "Brilliant Leader" cards to the the deck (1 if Skilled, 2 if Superior). A "Brilliant Leader" card acts like a wild card and can be used as any sequence card that would be available to the army. In a way, it lets the better historical commanders improvise out of the restrictions of the card sequence system.
Sequence Decks can include cards that allow special strategies or battlefield effects that reflect the strengths or weaknesses of the opposing armies.

If you have no more cards to flip from your Sequence Deck or the Initiative die rolls tie, the turn ends immediately. This creates a built-in variable turn duration that can leave players gambling if they have to achieve battlefield objectives by a certain turn.

THE STRESS OF BATTLE

Another cool aspect of the Piquet Sequence Deck system is how losses on the battlefield degrade your Sequence Deck. In some rule sets, your Army of Northern Virginia fights just as well on Turn 1 as on Turn 8 when half of the army has been destroyed. Most of us can agree that an army probably doesn't respond as well after it has suffered what my old battalion commander used to call a "significant emotional event." In Piquet, you shuffle your Sequence deck between turns and pull out cards for the following reasons:
  • 1 card for each routing, routed, or destroyed unit
  • 1 card for each killed sub-commander
  • 1 card if Command is Poor
  • 2 cards if Command is Abysmal
  • 1 card if commander-in-chief is commanding a command group himself
  • 2 cards for a dead commander-in-chief
The removed, useful cards are replaced with the aforementioned "Dress Lines/Milling Around" cards. So, as your army suffers stress and damage, its Sequence Deck becomes less efficient. You lose cards that would have let you actually do things on the battlefield and they are replaced with cards that waste your Impetus.

The final card that is inserted into the sequence deck is your Major Morale Test card. Whenever your army has a unit destroyed, routed, or routing between turns, this card is permanently added to your Sequence Deck. The card sits in your deck and forces a Major Morale test, basically an army morale check, when it flips, but since the turns end irregularly, it is not guaranteed to make an appearance.

IT'S FRUSTRATING TO BE IN COMMAND

So, you understand that your deck might be good or bad.

Maybe you can accept that, but the hardest part of the game for players to accept is that they are not guaranteed to win Impetus back after their opponent wins it.

In the lame example I gave, Robert won Initiative and had 9 Impetus. Robert might win Initiative again. And again. And again. Meanwhile, John stares with disgust at his Initiative die and watches Robert flip cards and move units with gleeful abandon.

You aren't completely helpless during your opponent's Initiative. Each player does get a few Opportunity Impetus Pips that he can use to make opportunity charges with cavalry or fire in his opponent's Initiative, but the supply of these Opportunity Impetus Pips is limited and can only be replenished when he regains the Initiative.

It's difficult to have a plan and deployment for your forces and then watch your opponent's cavalry dart around your flank and set up a flank charge. But disasters like that happened a lot in military history. Maybe your corps commander never saw the cavalry coming because of a dip in the terrain. Maybe he ignored your orders because he's nobility and you are the son of a farmer. Maybe the courier you sent was killed by an unlucky cannon shot. This shit happened all the time.

Own that feeling of frustration and then you can maybe end a game and say, "Wow, Being Braxton Bragg really sucks."

The key is understanding that eventually the tide will(might) turn in your favor. Every time your opponent spends Impetus, he can't be sure that you won't win the Initiative on the next Initiative roll. In the long term, the die rolls should even out.

This type of simulation isn't going to be for everyone. Some players don't want to be Braxton Bragg. Some players won't like the irregular and uneven action that is generated by the combination of Impetus and random card draws. However, few rulesets can take two players and make one into McClellan and one into Lee the way Piquet can.

In all fairness, I use the poker deck system for Initiative which replaces opposed d20 die rolls with draws from a standard poker deck. One side gets the black cards and one side gets the red cards. Face and 10 cards add 10 to the following cards if they have the same color. This gives Impetus results of 1-19 with Jokers ending the Turn. The poker system at least reassures the player whose ass is getting kicked on Impetus that there are some cards in the deck that might throw some Impetus Pips his way.

The opposed d20 die roll is hardcore Piquet. No guarantees.

A great advantage of this unpredictability is that the Piquet system is also a great ruleset for solitaire play. Since you don't know which card is going to come up or which side will win and keep the Initiative, it's easy to play both sides without subconsciously favoring one side over the other.

So, I recommend checking out the rules. Piquet master rules are only $5 on the piquet.com website! Rules questions are answered on the Yahoo Group with a response time that would make a fire department proud. Once you read through the standard rules, you can then decide if you want to invest in a supplement for your favorite period. Did I mention it's only $5? For a printed rulebook? Okay, I'll stop now. $5!

13 comments:

  1. Dave, glad to see you put such informative information on your blog. It makes me smile. I remember back in 1996 when I had the same thrill about gaming with Piquet. Changed my wargaming forever. Of course, there were no "Blogs" back in '96!

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  2. What's the difference between regular Piquet and the Piquet Field of Battle Rules?

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  3. Great question, Anonymous. There are a few differences. I'll address some of them here. I play both sets, but prefer Piquet.

    Field of Battle (FOB) is a stand alone product that requires no supplements. It comes with army lists for a 200 year period from roughly 1700-1900.

    I consider FOB to be a ruleset where some of the more Piquet-related characteristics have been diluted a bit to make it less jarring to gamers who are more familiar with conventional rule systems. I can usually get my friends to play Piquet, but they're always willing to play Field of Battle. Some of them run their own FOB games

    Impetus is shared in FOB. When one player wins Initiative, he gets the difference in the die roll to flip that many cards. BUT then his opponent gets the same number of cards to flip after him. So you aren't able to shut out your opponent and go on a big Impetus run like you can in Piquet.

    Also, you don't spend Impetus to activate your units. All units activate when you flip a card. You still have to roll dice for each command to see how far it can move and you aren't always guaranteed to be able to do what you want on your cards.

    The combat and morale systems are also compressed in FOB. Each unit only has a Combat die and a Defense die.

    I like Field of Battle and it is a great game if you want to fight a large battle in only a few hours. It is also a great entry-level game for Piquet newbies. In my mind, it doesn't have the level of detail, chaos and depth that Piquet and its supplements bring to their historical periods, but it will leave you with the feeling that you just fought a historical battle.

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  4. Come on, Eric. You still have that thrill. You're just used to feeling it.

    There's something satisfying about finding a set of rules that I'm finally satisfied with after searching, buying, and playing so many different rules over the last 15 years. Everyone expects something from wargaming. Piquet scratches my itch.

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  5. Well written synopsis of Piquet. I think I've been playing Piquet as long as Eric has and I never get tired playing them.

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  6. Hi

    Interesting post (I dont find any of your posts dull mate) and good synopsis of 'full' Piquet.
    I too love the inertia/chaos/confusion/frustration and sheer fun all the Piquet variants and styles create.
    I find them especially good for solo games.
    Only Might & Reason by Sam Mustafa comes close IMHO

    Cheers

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  7. David, you make such an excellent case that i may set aside my misgivings and bad experience with Piquet to try it out.

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  8. Hey, I'm planning to run Antietam at the LAX convention. Or just email me and I'll let you know when I'm going to host a game at my place.

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  9. "I consider FOB to be a ruleset where some of the more Piquet-related characteristics have been diluted a bit to make it less jarring to gamers who are more familiar with conventional rule systems."

    I really disagree with that-- I've played Piquet for years, and FoB seems streamlined to me, removing a lot of the stuff I never could remember from the regular Piquet rules in the first place!

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  10. Andy,

    I'm curious. What did FOB remove from Piquet that you had trouble remembering? I only have some trouble when I change supplements to a different historical period because certain Piquet supplements handle aspects of the game differently.

    I personally don't think Piquet is very difficult once you get used to the system. The individual components: cards, die escalation, morale chips, etc. seem pretty basic and most are included in FOB.

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  11. It's been a while since I dipped into regular Piquet, but I recall things like morale challenges and when and what causes Moral chip loss.

    "I personally don't think Piquet is very difficult once you get used to the system. The individual components: cards, die escalation, morale chips, etc. seem pretty basic and most are included in FOB."

    That's my point about it being streamlined-- I get all the Piquet-ness in FoB, but with fewer rules to remember. I just don't see FoB as "intro Piquet." It's got all the stuff that makes Piquet Piquet, without a lot of the more finicky detail of the Master Rules. I don't mind regular Piquet, mind you, I would just in general rather play FoB.

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  12. Andy,

    Funny. I'm the mirror image of you when it comes to preferences.

    I will definitely play Field of Battle if I'm given a chance, but I prefer Piquet. I do like Field of Battle. In fact, I recently acquired Field of Battle: WW2 and I've been very please with it.

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